How unintended religious discrimination in Irish schools has evolved since 1965

Over the past fifty years, the Irish education system has evolved to include religious discrimination that was not intended to be there. The influence of the Catholic Church has undermined attempts by politicians to respect and balance the Constitutional rights of all families.

Please lobby your politicians to introduce legal changes and statutory guidelines to reverse this religious discrimination. Here is some of the timeline of how it evolved.

The Education System as Established

When the Irish school system was established, schools had to offer a curriculum which combined moral and literary instruction but separate religious instruction.

Article 44.2.4 supports the right of students to not attend religious instruction. Article 42.1 guarantees the inalienable rights of parents in relation to the education of their children.

The Integrated Curriculum 1965 and 1971

In 1965 the Rules for National Schools were put in place. Rule 68 removed the separation between religious and secular subjects that had been in place since the start of the education system with no regard for minorities.

The 1971 Curriculum (Teachers Handbook) endorsed the religious integrated curriculum.

The Green Paper 1992

In 1992 the Green Paper ‘Education for a Changing World’ was published. The Green Paper raised this issue and recognised that the Rules for National Schools and the 1971 Teachers Handbook for Primary schools needed to be amended to ensure the Constitutional Rights of All children are fully safeguarded (page 90, 91).

The Constitutional Review Group 1995

In 1995 the Constitutional Review Group Report commented on this issue and said that:

“Requirements that the school must be prepared in principle to accept pupils from denominations other than its own and to have separate secular and religious instruction are not unreasonable or unfair.”

The White Paper on Education 1996

In 1996 the White Paper on Education 1996 supported putting in place guidelines on the Constitutional rights of minorities to not attend religious instruction and of their rights in relation to integrating religion into secular subjects.

In the White Paper there was no intention of providing a legal basis for encroaching on the time allocated for secular subjects while preparing children for religious sacraments.

The White paper stated that:

“While each school may properly nurture and support its particular ethos, it is also obliged to acknowledge and reflect the principles and requirements of a democratic society, respecting the diverse beliefs and ways of life of others.”

“Religious Education

The revised curriculum will reiterate the right of schools, in accordance with their religious ethos, to provide denominational religious education and instruction to their students, while underpinning the constitutional rights of parents to withdraw their children from religious education instruction. In the context of the revised curriculum, the Rules for National Schools and the Teacher’s Handbook will be reviewed to ensure that the Constitutional rights of children are fully safeguarded. Therefore, while recognising and supporting the denominational ethos of schools, all schools will be required, in their management and planning processes, to ensure that the rights of those who do not subscribe to the school’s ethos are protected in a caring manner.

A sensitive balance is required between the rights, obligations and choices of the majority of parents and students, who subscribe to the ethos of a school, and those in a minority, who may not subscribe to that ethos, but who do not have the option, for practical reasons, to select a school which reflects their particular choices. In very many instances, the concerns of the parents and students are dealt with successfully, but problems have arisen in some cases. In this regard, the Report on the National Education Convention noted that: “The dilemmas and challenges posed for policy-makers and school authorities require not only dialogue at school level but the development of “good practice” guidelines by a suitably qualified and representative working party convened by the Department” (p. 33).

“Such a working party will be convened in the near future.”(Page 25)

The Campaign Case 1998

In March 1998 the Supreme Court case (Campaign to Separate Church and State) referred to the ethos of schools influencing minorities. This was in relation to second level schools. The court was quite specific, they said that the religious ethos could influencing minorities to ‘some degree’ if they choose to attend that particular school. They referred to this influence happening in the general atmosphere of the school and did not refer to ethos influencing children because of integrating it into secular subjects.

The Education Act 1998

The Education Act 1998 does not specifically sanction integrating religion into secular subjects or taking up time allocated to secular subjects for preparing children for religious sacraments.

The Oireachtas debates on the Education Act 1998 and in Particular on Section 15 of the Act did not refer to integrating religion into all secular subjects including RSE.

  • Section 15-2(e) of the Education Act refers obliges the Board of Management to have regard to the principles and requirements of a democratic society and have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life in society.
  • Section 30-2(d) of the Education Act envisages space being left in the school day for the expression of the ethos of the school. That is not the same thing as integrating the ethos of the school into secular subjects including Relationship and sexuality education and giving children a choice be catholic moral education or no moral education at all.

The Primary School Curriculum 1999

In 1999 the updated Primary School Curriculum developed by the NCCA sanctioned the integrating of religion into secular subjects and bringing all children to a knowledge of god.

While it recognises pluralism, it failed to take on board the Green Paper on Education, the White Paper on Education, the Report of the Constitutional Review Group, the Supreme Court case (Campaign to Separate Church and State), and the underlying purpose of the Education Act 1998 in balancing rights in a democratic society and respecting the right of minority parents in relation to the education of their children.

Catholic Guidelines for Faith Formation 1999

In 1999 the Catholic Bishops published the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students. These Guidelines presented and outlined the integration of Catholic faith formation in the proposed State Religious education course that was to be introduced in 2000 in second level schools.

State Second Level Religious Education Curriculum 2000

In 2000 a State curriculum course on Religious Education was introduced for second level. One of the main aims of this course was to promote moral education through religion. The NCCA and the Department of Education claimed that this type of course was suitable for those with no religion.

OSCE International human rights based guidelines on Religion and Beliefs 2008

The Catholic Church rejected the OSCE human rights based Guidelines on teaching religion and beliefs in schools on the basis that they were not what the Church had in mind for the teaching of children.

The Report from the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission 2011

In 2011 the Irish Human Rights Commission published a Report; Religion & Education; A Human Rights perspective. The Commission made Recommendations religion in schools and putting in place guidelines.

The Report Recommended that:-

“Where diverse provision of education does not exist in a school’s catchment area, condiseration sould be given to move formal reliigon classes to the start or end of the school day. While not ideal in terms of separating children, this might provide greater accommodation to parents of minority faith, or non faith children seeking exemption. If sufficient numbers of students sought the exemption, provision could be made for a parallel class in ethics and philosophy, or other minority religions as demand dictates at the same time. ”

“The State should seek to ensure that all patrons in schools funded by the State are sensitive to the impact that manifestion of religious beliefs in the school may have on children of other faith or non faith backgrounds. In this regard those children should never experience exclusion or segregation in the school, or in any way be undermined int heir own faith or other philosophical convictions. Guidelines and examples of good practice, together with the allocation of necessary resources to implement such good practice should be developed in tandem with the enhanced complaints mechanism being recommended to Government. For their part, those denominational schools who have other faith or non faith chldren as pupils should take steps to guard against any inadvertent indoctrination or proselytism of those children by teachers.”


The Forum Report 2012

In 2011 the Report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism recommend guidelines to be developed by the Department of Education on the Constitutional rights of children:

“The Advisory Group recommends that the Department should, following consideration of this proposed framework, issue a protocol which will give clarity to schools on their responsibility to protect the rights of the children enrolled in the school, with regard to denominational religious education and religious practice. Exemplars of good practice should accompany the protocol.”(page 109)

“The Advisory Group recommends that the introduction to the Primary Curriculum should be revised to ensure that, while the general curriculum remains integrated, provision is made for denominational religious education/faith formation to be taught as a discrete subject.” (Page 111).

In July 2014 the Department of Education published a follow up to the Forum Report

The Report on ‘Progress to date and future directions’ raised the issue of the Constitutional right to not attend religous instruction and also issues around inclusion and diversity.

Because of the Forum Recommendations on religon in schools the Department of Education had in light of the particular challenges that this issue posed for Irish schools  decided to launch a public consultation on the matter to gather the views of parents in particular on what needs to be done to ensure that Irish schools can be inclusive of pupils of all faiths, beliefs and traditions.

The Report concluded that the Inspectorate should be involved in examining school policies on the school’s work to develop and implementing inclusion and diversity policies and report on them in whole-school evaluation. The Report stated that:-

“It is planned to refine these question sets further to provide better data on inclusiveness and diversity. Of course, inspection has to be informed by a set of articulated expectations, and work to define realistic expectations concerning inclusiveness will be required of the Department and others in this regard. This report is one of the first steps to this end.” (page 28)

The Report stated that;-

“Therefore, it is prudent to provide the existing schools with support and guidance in ensuring that their efforts to be welcoming and inclusive are effective. “

The Report went on to state that schools should put such arrangements in their written policies:-

“Therefore, it is important both that good practice should be reflected in the written policies of the school and that this should be shared with parents and prospective parents who are considering enrolling their child in the school.”

Catholic Religious Education Curriculum 2015

In 2015 the Catholic Bishops published their Religious Education curriculum for primary level. The Catholic Church recognised that there are issues on the grounds of conscience for minorities in relation to integrating religion into secular subjects. The say that teachers must:

“Every effort should be made to respect the freedom of conscience of children who have withdrawn from Religious Education.” (page 163)

There is no indication of what exactly ‘every effort’ means in practice on the ground. Teachers are not trained to balance these Constitutional rights and the State has not put in place any guidelines.

There are no guidelines from the Department of Education to help teachers decide how to balance such rights. Parents that exercise their Constitutional right to remove their child from religion have no idea what they are being taught through the religious integrated curriculum.

Removal of Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools 2016

In 2016 Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools was removed. Nothing changed on the ground for minorities who have no choice but to attend schools with a religious ethos. Schools with a religious ethos continued to integrate religion into curriculum subjects as per the Primary School Framework and used Section 15 of the Education Act 1998 to support this behaviour.

NCCA Report on the Forum Recommendations on ERBE 2017

In 2017 the NCCA published its final report on the Recommendation of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism to introduce a course for Primary Schools on Education About Religions, Beliefs and Ethics, delivered in an objective critical and pluralistic manner. The Catholic Church objected to the introduction of an objective course on ERB and ethics as it promoted a pluralistic view of religion that went against the Catholic philosophy of education. The Recommendation from the Forum was ignored and no course on ERB and ethics was introduced because of the objections of the Catholic Church.

Catholic Church on second level curriculum Religious Education 2018

In 2018 the Catholic Church stated about curriculum Religious Education that:

“RE defends the religious viewpoint as a legitimate way of reading and responding to the world – standing against both religious fundamentalism and any unhelpful forms of extreme secularism.” (Religious Education and the Framework for Junior Cycle)

ETB Community National Schools – Updated GMGY course 2018

ETB Community National Schools updated their Goodness Me Goodness You course in 2018. One of its aims is to teach children to respect beliefs and codes of conduct in relation to those beliefs. This course was developed by the NCCA and is not up to human rights standards as it is not an objective course about religons and beliefs. ETBs never inform parents that there is a Constitutional right to not attend this course and parents are not offered another course if they wish their child to opt out.

Admission to Schools Act 2018

In 2018 Section 62-7(n) of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act obliges schools to put in their Admission Policies the detailed arrangements for students that don’t attend religious instruction.

Schools have decided to ignore this legal obligation and the Department of Education is doing nothing to ensure that schools comply with this obligation.

NCCA Second Level Religious Education Curriculum 2019

In 2019 the NCCA updated the second level curriculum Religious Education course. The basic philosophy of the course was not changed. Its aim is to promote morals through religion. The NCCA appointed a Catholic priest as Chair of the Religious Reference Group to oversee the updating of the course. The Catholic Church had already rejected International human rights based Guidelines on teaching religion and beliefs in schools that was developed by the OSCE in 2008, that fact was not given any consideration.

Programme for Government 2020

In 2020 the Programme for Government committed to:

  • Establish a Citizens’ Assembly on the Future of Education ensuring that the voices of young people and those being educated are central.
  • Students of all religions and none should have access to education, regardless of their belief system.
  • The Government will continue to expand the plurality of our schools to reflect the full breadth of society.

It said that the Government will:

  • Achieve the target of at least 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030, to improve parental choice.
  • Expand and prioritise the transfer of viable schools to Community National Schools.
  • Ensure that a curriculum of multiple religious beliefs and ethics is taught as a national curriculum of tolerance and values in all primary schools.
Atheist Ireland