Misuse of public funds regarding religious instruction in schools Part 1 of 3

Atheist Ireland has sent a major report to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee. We are arguing that the Department of Education and the NCCA are misusing public funds by ignoring constitutional conditions about the right to not attend religious education in schools.

This is the first of three articles that include the content of this report. Here are links to all three articles:

Executive summary

Under Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution, it is a condition of State funding for schools that any child can attend that school without attending Religious Instruction at that school.

“Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.”

This right is supported by other Constitutional Articles, laws, and policy which we outline in this complaint. The funding of schools is conditional on this right being vindicated, yet the State is currently providing funding while ignoring this Constitutional condition. This is a misuse of public funds.

Every word in the Constitution has meaning. For example, under Article 42.4, the State provides ‘for’ education. The word ‘for’ has had an enormous impact on our education system. Similarly, article 44.2.4 refers specifically to the right to attend a school receiving public money ‘without attending’ Religious Instruction. Not attending is a stronger right than not participating.

‘Religious Instruction’ is the only type of teaching that the Constitution explicitly links with school funding. This means the funding duties explicitly associated with it are stronger than the funding duties implicitly associated with other teaching. Also, because ‘not attending’ is explicitly linked with funding, it encompasses the right to be supervised or taught another subject while ‘not attending’ Religious Instruction.

Parents have a legitimate expectation that the State will fulfil its Constitutional duty to protect their Constitutional rights, and to fund the protection of these rights, and to not fund the erosion of these rights. The Department of Education is aware that many schools refuse to vindicate this right, yet the Department still gives them funding.

Schools argue that they do not have the resources to vindicate this right as those resources have not been allocated by the Department of Education. But by accepting any State funding, schools are obliged to allocate existing funds to vindicating this right, in accordance with the Constitutional condition under which the State funding was given.

If the schools do not have the resources, it is because they have misallocated funds that they were obliged to allocate as a Constitutional condition of accepting State funding, and the State is failing in its Constitutional duty to ensure that schools meet this condition. This is not a matter of the State interfering in the right of schools to manage their own affairs (Article 44.2.5), because vindicating the right to not attend is a Constitutional condition of State funding.

The Minister currently argues that it is up to schools how they implement this right and duty, but there is a difference between how they implement a right and duty and whether they implement a right and duty. The Minister is aware that schools are not implementing the right and duty, and is doing nothing about this while continuing to provide these schools with State funding.

Part 1 of this complaint outlines the Constitutional rights of atheist, humanist, and secular families, and how the State is ignoring its funding duties in relation to the conditions attached to State funding of schools. This includes duties in the Constitution, the law, and policy.

Part 2 of this complaint shows how the Department of Education and the NCCA are rendering these Constitutional rights and funding duties theoretical or illusory. They are not being transparent in how they are doing this, which includes trying to redefine the terms ‘Religious Instruction’ and ‘Religious Education’ with no legal basis for doing so, using redefinitions that are not consistent with how the Supreme Court and the High Court have interpreted the Constitutional meanings of these terms.


1. The State has Funding Duties regarding not attending Religious Instruction

1.1 Atheists and secularists have equal rights in the education system
1.1.1 The equal Constitutional rights of atheists and secularists
1.1.2 The practical application of these Constitutional rights

1.2 The State has funding duties in the Constitution
1.2.1 Article 44 of the Constitution
1.2.2 Other relevant Articles in the Constitution
1.2.3 Legal Opinions from James Kane and Conor O’Mahony
1.2.4 Statement by Micheál Martin as Minister for Education

1.3 The State has funding duties in the law
1.3.1 Education Act 1998
1.3.2 Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018
1.3.3 Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act 1878

1.4 The State has funding duties in policy

2. The State is Misusing Public Funds and not being Transparent or Accountable

2.1 Overview

2.2 The Department is trying to redefine key Constitutional terms

2.3 What the Courts have said
2.3.1 Religious Education, Formation, and Instruction
2.3.2 Other relevant Court findings

2.4 Legal Opinions from James Kane and Conor O’Mahony

2.5 Documents obtained from NCCA under Freedom of Information
2.5.1 Letter from Department to NCCA 10 March 1994
2.5.2 NCCA Course Committee for Religious Education
2.5.3 NCCA Strategy for implementation of Religious Education
2.5.4 NCCA Briefing concerns in relation to Episcopal Conference
2.5.5 Meeting between NCCA and Department of Education

2.6 The aims and delivery of Syllabus Religious Education

2.7 The State-funded PDST and Catholic Diocesan Advisors

See Also

This is the first of three articles that include the content of this report. Here are links to all three articles:

Atheist Ireland