Homework Pass ruling has lessons for the state, school boards, principals, and teachers

A recent case at the Workplace Relations Commission has found that Yellow Furze National School in Meath discriminated on religious grounds against a family that had no religious belief. The school claimed at the WRC that the case was unfounded.

Most schools are unable to recognise religious discrimination when it is staring them in the face, because they do not recognise it in the same way as they would recognise discrimination on other grounds.

They still believe that the religious ethos of a school takes precedence over the rights of minorities to not attend religious teaching, to respect for their convictions, and to not be discriminated against while accessing the education system.

Also, teacher training colleges are failing to tackle religious discrimination because of the influence and control that the Catholic Church still has over teacher training.

In this case, the school did not accept the fact that a homework pass is a ‘benefit’ and that students from minority backgrounds who are opted out of religion cannot get that ‘benefit’ unless they act against their conscience and attend religious services.

This case also supports religious minorities, as schools cannot refuse to give a child from e.g a Muslim family a homework pass for not attending Catholic religious services or any type of religious service.

Discrimination on the grounds of disability

Imagine if a school gave homework passes to students who took part in a race organised by the school for their sports day, and it refused to give a pass to a student who could not take part because of a physical disability?

The school would recognise immediately that this was discrimination and unfair, and it would of course give the student with the disability a homework pass. The other parents in the school would recognise this immediately as well.

But when it comes to religion it is a different matter. The discrimination flies below the radar, and the hurt that families feel because of this treatment is simply disregarded.

Discrimination on the grounds of religion

The WRC Decision stated that:

“The Complainant as an atheist, was not in a position to attend the ceremony and therefore was not awarded a homework pass.”

The school –

It maintained that all children from 3rd to 6th classes, regardless of religion (or none), are invited and
welcome to participate in, and are all encouraged to give of their time for the benefit of others,
including singing in the choir for those children receiving a sacrament. In this regard the school choir
traditionally provides the music for the Ceremony on an annual basis. The Ceremony always takes
place on a Sunday and not during the school week.

The Respondent submitted that all children are to participate in both the practice for the Ceremony
and the Ceremony itself.”

All children are invited and welcome to attend and “to participate in” a religious service. If they don’t take up that invitation they get punished by not getting a homework pass! That is just coercion.

To ensure that as many students as possible attend catholic religious services outside school hours, the ethos of the school is given precedence over the Constitutional right of minorities to not attend, and the legal obligation of the Board of Management to respect that right and promote respect for the diversity of values and beliefs in a democratic society.

What does this policy say to children?

The school did not take into account what such a policy teaches children. The policy teaches children that you get rewarded for attending Catholic religious services and that, if you are not from a Catholic family and you don’t attend, you get punished by not getting a homework pass.

Children value homework passes. They see them as a reward. If you are not eligible for that reward, you are being punished. There really was no appreciation or understanding of the hurt caused to the child.

It is not possible for a parent to explain away this discrimination, as the facts speak for themselves. Sometimes children see things more clearly than adults.

Telling him that he could attend Catholic religious services if he wanted to get a homework pass didn’t make sense to him as his family was not Catholic.

Clear religious discrimination

The WRC decision also stated that the school said that:

The Respondent’s Code of Behaviour (the Code) provides that all children who engage in positive behaviour such as participating in extra-curricular activities and/or events for or on behalf of the school will receive a “reward” for their doing so, particularly if the activity in question takes place outside of school hours.

The school ethos is that attending Catholic religious services outside of schools hours is seen as ‘positive behaviour’ even for minorities and not attending is punished by refusing to give a child a homework pass. That ethos is in your face religious discrimination and the fact that the school thought they were inclusive says an awful lot about our education system and the treatment of minorities.

The WRC Decision stated that:-

I note the Respondent, by maintaining it is appropriate to award a benefit to children to attend a religious ceremony, does not appreciate this action had an adverse effect on students who are not of a Catholic faith.

It is really difficult to understand how they could not appreciate this discrimination. But many teachers live in a bubble. They never question, and are not taught to question, behaviour that has gone on for so long that it has become part of the culture.

It is left to individual families to challenge this discrimination on their own. It is no wonder that change is so slow. Minority families just go along with this behaviour as it has become part of Irish culture, and challenging it means challenging Irish culture.

The influence of religious ethos

The Supreme Court has recognised that a religious ethos will influence minority students to ‘some degree’ if parents choose to send their child to that school. In schools with a Catholic ethos ‘to some degree’ has morphed into open religious discrimination.

Why? Because successive Ministers for Education have failed to recognise their positive obligation to give practical application to the rights of minority parents and their children in the education system.

It is not in the common good to continue to turn a blind eye to the hurt that minorities have to put up with in the education system.

The problem with teacher Training

Teachers do not understand the right to freedom of belief if they think that minorities can attend a Catholic religious ceremony or be punished for not attending.

Teachers who work in Catholic schools are trained to see their role as a missionary one. They are legally obliged to uphold the ethos of the school and they are trained to do so. The purpose of a religious ethos is to influence and there are no Department of Education guidelines on the degree of that influence.

Students teachers are not trained to take on board the fact that they cannot discriminate in relation to any benefit provided by the school or any other term or condition of participation of a student in the school.

The Equal Status Act doesn’t give them the right to evangelise minorities, the lack of statutory Guidelines as to the degree of ‘influence’ of a religious ethos on minorities enables this discriminatory behaviour.

Responsibilities of Boards of Management

The WRC stated that:

It is acknowledged that school is entitled to establish and adhere to its religious ethos, but in so doing it cannot disregard its obligations under Section 7 of the Act by discriminating in relation to the access of a student to any … benefit provided by the establishment… and any other term or condition of participation in the establishment by a student. The case within refers to the reward of a homework pass for the attendance at a church ceremony, and by way of the Complainant’s religious beliefs he could not avail of the reward.

The terms and conditions of the opt-out from religion have up to now been put in place by Principals and teachers, even though it is the legal responsibility of the Board of Management.

Under the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018, the Admissions Policy drafted by the Board of Management must give detailed arrangements for those not attending religious instruction. That Admissions Policy must be given to parents and published on the website of the school.

Hopefully, Boards of Management will realise their legal responsibilities under the Equal Status Act and the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act and ensure that the Catholic ethos of the school respects and promotes respect for the rights of minorities and does not discriminate on the grounds of religion. Schools must:

operate in manner that it does not discriminate students who are of a different religious belief, or of no religion, in relation to the access of any benefit provided and in any term or condition of participation in the establishment by a student” (WRC Decision)

Conclusion

It is time that the State moved to give practical application to the rights of minorities in the education system and to insist that school boards, principals, and teachers respect these rights.

The State absolving itself of that responsibility enables private bodies to discriminate on religious grounds against minorities and to evangelise their children into a Catholic way of life.

Atheist Ireland

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