Misuse of public funds regarding religious instruction in schools Part 3 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 third of three articles that include the content of this report. Here are links to all three articles:
- Executive Summary and Contents
- 1. The State has Funding Duties regarding not attending Religious Instruction
- 2. The State is Misusing Public Funds and not being Transparent or Accountable
2. The State is Misusing Public Funds and not being Transparent or Accountable
The Minister is obliged to leave reasonable instruction time for subjects relating to or arising from the characteristic spirit (ethos) of the school. In denominational schools these subjects are indisputably ‘Religious Instruction’ where the Constitutional right to not attend applies.
In 2000 the Department and the NCCA introduced Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ into the curriculum at second level. In addition the Department and the NCCA have also introduced into Community National Schools at Primary level a course called ‘Goodness Me Goodness You’ (GMGY) which includes elements of religious and moral education.
A significant amount of public funding was used to develop both these courses, and continues to be used each year.
The State has recently started to argue that these courses do not fall into the category of ‘Religious Instruction’ and therefore argues that the Constitutional right to not attend ‘does not arise’. However:
- To make this case, the State relies on new definitions that have no legal basis, and that are not consistent with the rulings of the Supreme Court and the High Court. Also, the specific arguments that the State uses to justify this have shifted over time, including within Circular Letters and answers to Oireachtas questions, so they are not based on a consistent foundation.
- Atheist, humanist, and secular parents object on the grounds of conscience to the content of these courses, and we have the same Constitutional rights of conscience as religious people.
- At primary level, the GMGY course is the patron’s programme. At second level, Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ is in practice integrated with the patron’s programme. It is not taught separately, as that would mean two separate Religion classes would be happening during the school day.
The State has introduced syllabus ‘Religious Education’ courses that teach morals through religion and not objectively and claim that they are not ‘Religious Instruction’ but ‘Religious Education’ or in the case of the GMGY course ‘Ethical Education’.
In 2019 Minister for Education Richard Bruton said that Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ is just like any other subject such as history or geography. However, unlike history or geography, the Department of Education and the NCCA developed the Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ course with the intention that the Catholic Church would use it to support their ‘faith formation’ or ‘catechetical’ requirements.
Also, in order to introduce syllabus ‘Religious Education’ and assessment at Junior and Leaving Certificate level the Department of Education needed to amend the Intermediate Education Act as that Act did not permit the holding of exams in Religious Instruction (see Section 1.3.3 of this document above).
The result of the above on the ground is that Catholic faith formation is integrated into Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ while the Department of Education, the NCCA, the Catholic Church and Education and Training Board schools claim that it is not ‘Religious Instruction’ but ‘Religious Education’ and the right to not attend ‘does not arise’. This is a significant claim to make and, as this document shows, it is not supported by the evidence.
2.2 The Department is trying to redefine key Constitutional terms
In 2000 the Department and the NCCA introduced Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ into the curriculum at second level. In addition the Department and the NCCA have also introduced into Community National Schools at Primary level called the Goodness Me Goodness You course.
In recent years the Department of Education has been trying to redefine the phrases ‘Religious Instruction’ and ‘Religious Education’. They then claim that Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ does not fall under the category of ‘Religious Instruction’ for the purposes of Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution, which includes funding duties.
But the redefinitions they are using have no basis in law, do not take due regard to the Constitutional rights of parents, and are inconsistent with the findings of the Supreme Court. Atheist Ireland obtained a legal opinion from James Kane, barrister-At-Law, about Article 44.2.4. This opinion states that:
“50 Moreover, the name assigned to a particular course will not be determinative of the question whether the subject is religious instruction or religious education. Were it otherwise, it would be permissible to simply teach religious instruction without offering an opt out by simply calling the subject “religious education.” This would clearly frustrate the right to not attend religious instruction.
51. In a similar manner, the question whether a course is religious instruction or education, does not turn on the question who is providing the course. If a course constitutes religious instruction, which is a question going to the substance of the course, the right to opt out will be engaged.”
“The other significant clarification is that classes following the NCCA Religious Education syllabuses cannot have any element of religious instruction or worship, which also means that opt out does not arise.”
This press release claims that Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ is educational. It also claims that ‘Religious Instruction’ refers to classes in accordance with the rites and practices of a particular religious denomination. But the Department has also said (in Circular 0013/2018 page 4) that the NCCA-developed syllabus for ‘Religious Education’ serves to meet the Religious Instruction requirements of the Catholic Church.Those statements are contradictory.
As recently 26 November 2021 the Department stated in an email to Atheist Ireland that:
“At the outset, it is important to distinguish between Religious Education as an educational activity that deepens young people’s understanding of religions, whatever their background or beliefs, and Religious Instruction, understood as initiating or nurturing young people into a particular religious way of life (sometimes also referred to as faith formation or catechesis). It is not the aim of Religious Education to facilitate Religious Instruction or a type of learning that has as its aim nurturing into a particular religious tradition or set of beliefs.”
Note the use of the passive phrases “understood as…” and “sometimes also referred to as…” which do not attribute any source or justification to the definitions that follow.
This email from the Department to Atheist Ireland also stated:
“Currently at Primary level, Religious Education is one of 12 subjects in the 1999 Primary School Curriculum. It holds a unique position in that the responsibility for providing a programme of Religious Education rests with the patron bodies of individual schools and not the State. There are a number of patrons’ programmes within the primary school system reflecting the diversity of patronage. Some of these are denominational or religious in nature, emphasising the place of children’s faith, spiritual and moral development in their lives. Other patrons’ programmes are ethical in nature and emphasise fostering children’s understanding of ethics and values.”
This adds another level of confusion, and lack of transparency and accountability, to the Department’s definitions of ‘Religious Education’ and ‘Religious Instruction’. The Department is saying here that at primary level ‘Religious Education’ is delivered through patrons’ programmes that are “denominational or religious in nature, emphasising the place of children’s faith, spiritual and moral development in their lives.”
This contradicts the same email’s “at the outset” paragraph, which states that ‘Religious Education’ is not denominational or religious in nature, but is “an educational activity that deepens young people’s understanding of religions, whatever their background or beliefs.”
None of the Department’s contradictory definitions are based on the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Campaign to Separate Church and State v. Minister for Education 1998, which the Court of Appeal in the recent Burke case has said is binding authority.
2.3 What the Courts have said
These various claims by the Department and the NCCA have no legal basis because of what the High Court and Supreme Court have said about the Constitutional rights of parents in relation to the religious and moral education and formation of their children. The duty of the state to protect these rights has an impact on the funding of any Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ courses.
The Department of Education and the NCCA ignored key aspects of the Supreme Court judgment in the Campaign to Separate Church and State case in 1998 when Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ was introduced in 2000. They failed to take ‘due regard’ (Article 42.4) to their duty in relation to the rights of atheist parents regarding the moral education and moral formation of their children and the connection to Religious Instruction.
Justice Barrington stated in the Campaign case at the Supreme Court:
“But the matter does not end there. Article 42 of the Constitution acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of the parents to provide for the religious, moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children. Article 42 S.2 prescribes that the parents shall be free to provide “this education” (i.e. religious moral intellectual physical and social education) in their homes or in private schools or “in schools recognised or established by the State”. In other words the Constitution contemplates children receiving religious education in schools recognised or established by the State but in accordance with the wishes of the parents.
It is in this context that one must read Article 44 S.2 s.s.4 which prescribes that “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.”
2.3.1 Religious Education, Formation, and Instruction
Barrington went on to say that:
“The Constitution therefore distinguishes between religious “education” and religious “instruction” – the former being the much wider term. A child who attend a school run by a religious denominational different from his own may have a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction at that school but the Constitution cannot protect him from being influenced, to some degree, by the religious “ethos” of the school. A religious denomination is not obliged to change the general atmosphere of its school merely to accommodate a child of a different religious persuasion who wishes to attend that school.”
Note here that the distinction that Barrington makes is that ‘Religious Instruction’ is the timetabled Religious Instruction/Teaching (‘Teagasc Creidimh’) that you can physically not attend, while ‘Religious Education’ relates to the ‘ethos’ or the ‘general atmosphere’ of the school.
By contrast, the State makes different and contradictory claims about this distinction. The State claims that Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ is suitable for all religions and none, while it also developed the course to suit the faith formation requirements of the Catholic Church.
The State also claims that, while a patron cannot change the content of the syllabus to suit its ethos, it can use its ethos to influence how the course is delivered and the resources used in that delivery. This overlaps with the teaching of sex education and the resources given to that.
The High Court in 1996 had previously distinguished between ‘Religious Education’ and ‘Religious Formation’ under Article 42 as:
“I have underlined the words “religious and moral formation” to draw attention to the fact that this Article recognises that parents have rights not only to provide for the religious education of their children (sub-paragraph (1)) but also rights in the matter of their religious formation (sub-paragraph (4)) and that it specifically enjoins the State when providing educational facilities to have regard to both these distinct rights.
The difference between the ordinary meaning of these two concepts is not difficult to identify; broadly speaking, the religious education of a child is concerned with the teaching of religious doctrine, apologetics, religious history and comparative religions, whilst the religious formation of a child involves familiarising the child not just with religious doctrine but with religious practice (by attendance at religious services) and developing the child’s spiritual and religious life by prayer and bible reading and I think that the Constitution should be construed so as to reflect this meaning. In the case of parents who profess the Catholic faith the religious formation of their children involved ensuring that their children attend Mass and that they pray and receive the sacraments on a regular basis.”
The High Court in the same case went into further detail about the meanings of ‘Religious Education’ and ‘Religious formation.’
The Court said that ‘Religious Education’ encompasses doctrine, apologetics, religious history and comparative religions. The Court also said that there were two distinct rights under Article 42, one was ‘Religious Education’ and the other was ‘Religious Formation.’ The Court said that the ‘Religious Formation’ part of ‘Religious Education’ includes familiarising a child with doctrine and in the case of a Catholic child ensuring that they attend Mass and say their prayers.
So ‘Religious Formation’ is an extra dimension to the ‘Religious Education’ of children. ‘Religious Education’ comes under Article 42.1 of the Constitution and ‘Religious Formation’ comes under Article 42.4. ‘Religious Instruction’ comes under Article 44.2.4 and is simply religious teaching (Teagasc Creidimh).
Articles 42.1 and 42.4 relate to the rights of parents in relation to the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social ‘Education’ of their children. An element of that ‘Education’ is ‘Religious Education’ and an element of ‘Religious Education’ is ‘Religious Formation’.
For example Justice Keane in the Supreme Court in the Campaign case said that chaplains are constitutionally sanctioned:
“Having regard to the recognition in Article 42.4 of the rights of parents in relation to the religious and moral formation of their children,”
And Justice Barrington said in the same case that:
“In community schools it is no longer practicable to combine religious and academic education in the way that a religious order might have done in the past. Nevertheless parents have the same right to have religious education provided in the schools where their children attend. They are not obliged to settle merely for religious “instruction”. The role of the Chaplain is to help provide this extra dimension to the religious education of the children.”
So the role of the Chaplain is to help parents with the Religious and Moral ‘Formation’ of their children (Keane) which is an extra dimension to the ‘Religious Education’ of the children (Barrington). ‘Faith Formation’ is familiarising a child with doctrine and in the case of a Catholic child ensuring that they attend Mass and say their prayers (Costello).
In summary, the definitions that the Department are using are contrary to how the Supreme Court has defined Religious Instruction, Education, and Formation.
2.3.2 Other relevant Court findings
In the Campaign case, Barrington said in relation to Chaplains that:
“Secondly while it is obviously right and proper that a Chaplain should counsel and advise any child who may consult him about its problems it would be constitutionally impermissible for a Chaplain to instruct a child in a religion other than its own without the knowledge and consent of its parents.”
The contract for Chaplains requires them to teach for four hours per week. There is no difference in principle between a Chaplain and a Religion teacher instructing a child in a religion other than its own through Syllabus ‘Religious Education’.
In the recent Burke case at the Court of Appeal in 2019 (currently being appealed to the Supreme Court) the Court stated that:
“191. This Court considers that the case law demonstrates that the relationship between parents, the State and the child as envisaged by Articles 40, 41 and 42, is a trifecta not just of the participants but of the rules under which constitutional engagement on education must take place; namely rights, duties and powers. It is only through understanding the interwoven nature of those relationships, that clarity can be brought to the complex constitutional provisions on education. It appears to us that the right of the child to education does not stop at the point where “a certain minimum education” has been imparted but is interwoven with the parents’ right to choose how to provide for secondary education and also the State’s power to make provision for such education.”
The Court of Appeal also stated that:
“171. The decision of the Supreme Court in the Campaign to Separate Church and State v. Minister for Education is binding authority.”
This is a significant point, as much of the State’s evasion of its funding duties depends on the State ignoring the distinctions between ‘Religious Instruction’ and ‘Religious Education’ made by the Supreme Court in the Campaign case, and replacing those distinctions with new definitions that they have invented with no legal basis for doing so.
2.4 Legal Opinions from James Kane and Conor O’Mahony
Dr. Conor O’Mahony has said about the right to not attend religious instruction that:
“The integrated curriculum does not operate in secondary schools in the same way, and while over 95% of primary schools are denominational, this can only be said of about 50% of secondary schools. Castletroy College initially sought to resist the request to opt-out on the basis that the subject being provided was multi-denominational rather than doctrinal instruction. Nonetheless, the view taken by the Supreme Court in the passage quoted above suggests that this distinction is irrelevant. The right to opt-out applies to the formal timetabled period of “religious instruction”, and would seem to capture whatever form that instruction might take. Thus, while the distinction between “religious instruction” and the overall school ethos or “religious education” is often pointed to as undermining the right to opt-out in a primary school context, it might ironically serve to strengthen it in a secondary school setting.”
Atheist Ireland obtained a legal opinion in 2020 from James Kane Barrister-at-Law on this issue. This states that:
“45. The suggestion that religious teaching is religious instruction only when that teaching relates to one religion arises above and also as the Department appears to be of the view that religious instruction arises (thereby triggering an opt out right) only where the teaching in question relates to one religion.35 46. For a number of reasons, it is my view that an argument that a course is not religious instruction by dint of the fact that the course refers to more than one specific religion is not necessarily correct. 47.
First, Article 44.2.4° simply refers to “religious instruction.” Accordingly, if a course is religious instruction, the right is engaged. Article 44.2.4° says nothing whatsoever about religious instruction relating to one religion only. No such qualification is found within Article 44.2.4°. In the context of a family of an atheist perspective, it appears that it would be impermissible to refuse an opt out by arguing that the course in question relates to more than one religion. If one takes an extreme example whereby a publicly funded school offered a course which relentlessly pressed theistic beliefs and sought expressly to reject atheist views with the aim to convert atheist students to persons of theistic beliefs, it is almost certain in my view that such a course would engage the opt out right. The fact that such a course related to multiple theistic religions would not remove the right to opt out.
48. Second, there is no great difference in principle between a person of one faith who wishes to opt out of religious instruction in another particular faith and a person of no faith who wishes to opt out of religious instruction in a number of faiths. It would appear to me that drawing a distinction between these persons would fly in the face of the freedom of conscience which is expressly protected by Article 44.2.1° and which extends to protect persons of no belief. Further, it is inconsistent with the prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of religious profession, belief or status, protected under Article 44.2.3°. As the Constitution is generally to be construed in a manner which does not place constitutional articles on a collision course with each other36, it appears to me to be incorrect to interpret Article 44.2.4° as confined to an opt out from teaching relating to one religion only. The sole question is whether the course is religious instruction in substance.
49. In my view, it is at least probable, if not likely, that any course which through its cumulative impression has the effect of invalidating atheist perspectives through promoting theistic views, comprises religious instruction to which an opt out must be available. This applies in my view whether the teaching in question relates to one religion only or more than one.”
2.5 Documents obtained from NCCA under Freedom of Information
2.5.1 Letter from Department to NCCA 10 March 1994
Atheist Ireland has obtained documents under FOI that show that, when Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ was being developed in the 1990s, the Department of Education raised Constitutional concerns in relation to:
- Discrimination under Article 44.2.3 of the Constitution
- The endowment of religion under Article 44.2.5 and
- The right to not attend Religious Instruction under Article 44.2.4
This letter from the Department to the NCCA on 10 March 1994 also also says that in defending the course and examination before the courts, the State would need weighty, objective arguments to justify it on educational grounds.
“The most obvious issue to address in this context is the effect of section 5 of the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act, 1878, which prohibits the holding of an examination in religious instruction and State support for such an exam. The primary aim of this provision appears to have been o prevent public funds being spent on denominational education. Although the legislation is now quite old and in many respects outdated, this particular provision has not been repealed. The Intermediate Education Board for Ireland which was established by the legislation was dissolved in 1923 and its powers and functions passed to the Minister for Education under the Ministers and Secretaries Act, 1924. The Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools issues by the Minister have their statutory basis in the Act. Our advice is that the provisions relating to examinations in religious instruction have not lapsed and would have to be repealed before examinations could be held in religion.
In considering a claim of discrimination in this context, a court could be expected to enquire into the education need for the course, however desirable and valuable it may otherwise be. It is also unlikely that a court would be convinced by the argument that the examination came within the provisions guaranteeing free profession of religion, as it could hardly be said that the proposed course was necessary for the free practice and profession of the Christian religions. In defending the course and examination before the courts the State would need weighty, objective arguments to justify it on educational grounds. In deciding whether or not to introduce this course, it may be desirable that this Department and the NCCA marshal these arguments so that the strength and the constitutional position can be fully assessed.
In addition to this issue of discrimination, the proposed course raises issues of endowment of religion contrary to Article 44.2.2 of the Constitution. The denominational structure of our educational system is, in all probability, underpinned by the Constitution to an extent which would defeat any claim that State support for denominational schools, per se, amounted to an unconstitutional endowment of religion. A court is likely to take the view that, to the extent that such support represents endowment, the funding of denominational education and the teaching of religion is necessary to uphold the rights of parents to provide for the religious and moral education of their children and the right to freedom of religious expression. In doing so however, a court might also take the view that there should be an endowment of religion only to an extent which is objectively necessary and proportionate to the aim of inculcating moral and religious principles. A formal course of studies, leading to a formal state funded examination could well be considered to go beyond what could e considered necessary for that limited purpose.”
2.5.2 NCCA Course Committee for Religious Education
These Constitutional issues were also raised in the second draft of the report of the NCCA Course Committee for Religious Education. This states that:
“The Constitution underlines the rights and duties of parents in the provision of education for the nation’s children. Schools are to assist the parents in their role as the primary and natural educators of their children. Providing a syllabus for religious education, based on educational principles and assessed according to those same principles state is would support this right of the parents in this regard. A Religious Education syllabus, based on the educational principles which govern other subject areas, has a legitimate place on the school curriculum. Mindful of the rights of parents, however, such a syllabus would be optional. The educational basis for any syllabus ensures that concerns about article 44.2.4 of the constitution on issues of endowment and discrimination can be overcome.”
The very purpose of Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ and the basis on which it was developed was to help parents with the religious education of their children. The Department and the NCCA did not give any explanation as to why they would need to help atheist, humanist and secular parents with the religious education of their children and why this would not breach their constitutional rights in relation to the moral education of of their children. Issues around Article 44.2.4 were not overcome, but were ignored.
2.5.3 NCCA Strategy for implementation of Religious Education
On 30 June 1998 the NCCA wrote a strategy for implementation of ‘Religious Education’ as an optional subject for assessment and certification in the Junior Certificate examination. This included:
“1.3 phased introduction
It would acknowledge the unique position of Religious Education in the schools by allowing schools time to reflect on the implications of the optional syllabuses for their current Religious Education provisions and for resource and staffing requirements.”
The implementation strategy below has an estimated cost of 630.000 over a period of four and a half years – an average per annum of 140.000. The initial phases of the implementation process are significantly less costly than the average figure. The most resource intensive year would be 2001-2002 as he vast majority of schools who wish to offer the syllabus for Junior Certificate will come on stream that year…”
This misuse of public funds has continued over the years. Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ teachers are funded by the State to teach a course that students from atheist, humanist and secular families cannot access because of their conscience.
2.5.4 NCCA Briefing concerns in relation to Episcopal Conference
In 1999 the NCCA wrote a document called ‘Religious Education in the Junior Certificate Briefing Note in relation to the likely concerns of the Episcopal Conference’. This included:
“3.1 Optional Syllabus
These syllabuses are optional. Schools may continue in offering current syllabuses. Other schools may choose to offer the new syllabuses to all or some of their students.
3.2 Catechetical Programmes
The aim of the syllabuses make it clear that they are not designed to meet the ‘faith formation’ or ‘catechetical’ requirements of any religious denomination. However, many schools intend using them as a support for such work in school, particularly at Junior Certificate level. The syllabus for Junior Certificate has been designed to offer this flexibility. The Episcopal conference has commissioned wok on guidelines in this regard and the NCCA’s education officer has briefed the working group and met with the author on a number of occasions.”
The Department of Education and the NCCA were aware before the introduction and funding of Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ that Catholic faith formation would be integrated into the syllabus. Notwithstanding the fact that schools could continue to offer the Patron’s programme, there simply would not be enough time in the school day to offer two courses in religion. Syllabus Religious Education was designed to meet the faith formation goals of the Catholic Church.
At the time the Humanist Association of Ireland had requested representation on the NCCA course committee on ‘Religious Education’ but were refused on the basis that they were not involved in religious education. That was exactly the point of requesting a place on Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ and particularly a course that promoted morals through ‘Religious Education’. The Department and the NCCA failed to take due regard of the Constitutional rights of atheist, humanist and secular parents in relation to the moral education and formation of their children while spending public funds.
2.5.5 Meeting between NCCA and Department of Education
These are extracts from a report by the NCCA Religious Education Committee about a meeting between committee members and officials of the Department of Education held on 24 October 1995 at the Department of Education.
“Department of Education Policy
Tom Boland stated that the delay in response to the rationale document was due to the ongoing case in the High Court concerning the payment of chaplains in community Schools. The outcome of this case could have implications for the work of the committee, although the work of the committee was not dependent upon it. Judgement in this is due before Christmas.
A document concerning any constitutional difficulties which might arise in the provision of syllabuses for Religious Education has been sent by the Department to the Attorney General’s office. While such difficulties are not expected, the matter must be clarified.
The committee stated that the provision of Religious Education syllabuses was on sound educational grounds which would further avoid any such difficulties.”
“Circulation of the Syllabuses for Consultation
The advice of the Department of Education was to defer the circulation of these drafts until the Attorney General had responded to the Departments submission. This response is expected in December. The committee and the NCCA agreed that such a deferral was appropriate.”
2.6 The aims and delivery of Syllabus ‘Religious Education’
When State funding was used to develop Syllabus ‘Religious Education’, the Department and the NCCA failed to take ‘due regard’ (Article 42.4) to their duty in relation to the rights of non religious parents regarding the moral education and moral formation of their children, and the connection to ‘Religious Instruction’ and the findings of the Supreme Court in the Campaign case.
The main aims were (a) and now are (b) to:
- (a) Develop moral and spiritual values through religious education and acknowledge the non religious interpretation of life (original Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ 2000)
- (b) Develop values to enable students to see the relevance of religion to their lives and relationships. (updated Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ 2019).
Circular letter 0062/2018 issued by the Department of Education states:
“The NCCA-developed Religious Education Junior and Senior Cycle syllabuses, and the Religious Education specification for Junior Cycle, to be introduced in 2019, are intended for students of all faith backgrounds and none. The content prescribed in the syllabuses is intended to ensure that students are exposed to a broad range of religious traditions and to the non-religious interpretation of life. They do not provide religious instruction in any particular religious or faith tradition.”
But Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ goes much further than those aims. It is formational and not objective. Its aims are to develop morals, including for children of atheist parents, through ‘Religious Education’.
This is not just a matter of parents ensuring that their children not attend ‘Religious Education’ classes, but also a matter of the State using public funds to introduce a Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ course with exams that students from atheist families cannot access because of conscience.
In addition to the content of Syllabus ‘Religious Education’, most schools integrate Catholic faith formation into Syllabus ‘Religious Education’, and inform parents that it is not ‘Religious Instruction’ but ‘Religious Education’ and suitable for all religions and none.
Section 5 of Circular Letter 0013/2018 states that:
“The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) Developed Curriculum for Religious Education — The NCCA developed curriculum for Religious Education currently also serves to meet the religious instruction requirements of the Catholic Church and schools can continue this arrangements for pupils whose parents elect for Catholic religious instruction or other parents who wish to follow the NCCA curriculum, and where that is the case it is important in the information provided to parents that they are made fully aware that the curriculum is not necessarily confined to learning about religions.”
Circular Letter 0062/2018 states about that section that:
“In section 5 of that circular it was stated that the NCCA Religious Education curriculum at either Junior or Senior cycle level also serves the religious instruction requirements of the Catholic church and that where that is the case it is important that parents are made fully aware that the curriculum is not necessarily confined to learning about religions.”
“The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference published guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic students which built on the content of the Junior Certificate Religious Education Syllabus 1999* and the Leaving Certificate Religious Education Syllabus 2006**. In addition, parental experience conveyed to the Department suggests that in some schools there has been a practice of delivering Catholic religious instruction within class periods where the NCCA Religious Education syllabus is time-tabled.”
Atheist Ireland’s Legal Opinion from James Kane states about this that:
“76. The above material suggests that the NCCA religion course for junior certificate was molded with input from religious bodies who in turn designed guidelines for the supplementation of the NCCA junior certificate course with Catholic faith formation and development. It is impossible in those circumstances to see any justification whatsoever for withholding the right of a student to opt out of such a course. The intricate architecture comprising the NCCA syllabus layered with guidelines and various assertions cannot overcome the fundamental principle that a child must be permitted to not attend religious instruction in State funded schools.
Teaching Catholic instruction during the State religion syllabus, without offering a supervised opt out, represents an unlawful, systematic and stark attack on the right to not attend religious instruction* in State funded schools.
77. A student must as a matter of law be permitted by the school to opt out of Catholic instructions at school.”
* our emphasis
2.7 The State-funded PDST and Catholic Diocesan Advisors
Catholic Diocesan Adviser are appointed by local Bishops and are accountable to them. The Catholic Bishops have said that the Diocesan Advisers:
“traditionally involved themselves with the resourcing and support of the mainstream syllabi for RE – including those for State examinations. This is alongside the professional development services of the DES”.
This also applied to the ETBs, as ‘Religious Education’ teachers in ETBs also attended these in-service days. We have already raised this issue with the Department of Education who have informed us that:
“The PDST can on occasion be invited to provide inputs at various educational conferences and events. This can happen for all subjects including Religion. Any input provided by the PDST is directly connected to the curriculum and classroom methodologies/assessment” (Teacher Education Section (ITE & Professional Development) Department of Education)
We requested documents from the Department of Education (under FOI) relating to a letter sent by the then Minister for Education, Michael Woods in 2001 to the National Association of Post Primary Diocesan Advisers/Co-ordinators. The Minister had informed the Diocesan Advisers that it was not possible to have Diocesan Advisers at inservice courses for Junior Certificate Religious Education and why funding for local inservice by Diocesan Advisers is not possible.
The response from the Department states that the only document available is a Note for the Secretary General in relation to the funding of £20,000 to the Diocese of Cork and Ross.
Initially the Department of Education provided £20,000 funding to the Catholic Church to train teachers in Syllabus ‘Religious Education’. A Note for the Secretary General stated that:
“Re: Grants for to the diocese of Cork and Ross for the project entitled “Support and Development, with special emphasis on Methodology and Teaching Skills, of Post Primary RE Teachers in the greater Cork area”.
A “once off” grant of £20,000 was sanctioned for the project on 7th January 2000 – £10,000 of which was paid as an advance on 3rd April 2000. The balance of the £10,000 was due to be paid on completion of the project.”
A request a year later for a further grant was refused on the grounds that the Department had by then put in place its own in-service training. But the Department had already funded at least one project by the Catholic Church to train teachers for Syllabus ‘Religious Education’.
The Department of Education handed £20,000 to the Diocese of Cork and Ross for a Religion course that was supposed to be for all religions and none. No other religion or body was given such funding. There was no accountability for this funding, and it is possible that other Dioceses were given funding as well.
Religion teachers in ETB schools as well as Religion teachers in denominational schools were attending in-service days for Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ hosted by Catholic Diocesan Advisers where the PDST claims that “Any input provided by the PDST is directly connected to the curriculum and classroom methodologies/assessment.”
This is despite the fact that the Letter from the then Minister Michael Woods in 2001 has told them that it was not possible for them to attend in-service days for syllabus ‘Religious Education.’ The PDST use public funds to attend these in-service days hosted by Catholic Diocesan Advisers.
In 2018 the Department of Education told ETB schools not to integrate Catholic Faith Formation and Development into Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ anymore. However, we are aware that some ETB schools have continued to do this.
Also, the practice continues unchallenged in denominational schools. Schools under Catholic patronage still integrate Catholic faith formation into Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ and tell parents it is not ‘Religious Instruction’ but ‘Religious Education’.
Part of the resources on the PDST website for the Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ course introduced in 2000 is a document called ‘The question of faith – Factors that can influence religious beliefs and practice.’ This includes:
“Teachers, chaplains, religious and priests can also be good role models for young people. Sometimes if young people have a good experience of Religious Education in school their belief in God can be strengthened. R.E. class can open their minds and hearts to the mystery of God and how faith can be lived. In schools they can be exposed to meditation, liturgies, opening year masses, graduation ceremonies etc which involve them in a meaningful way. This can provide a sense of union with one another and with God. It can encourage them to continue to pray, worship and to live by religious moral values in their daily lives. Seeing adults such as religious sisters and clergy who have a vocation to follow Christ, and who offer their lives in service of God and one another, can be a living example of the love of God in the world and the importance of religious faith. It reminds young people that religion has a valuable role to play in life.”
The only reason that Catholic Diocesan Advisers hold in-service days for Religion teachers (alongside the State-funded PDST, with State-funded teachers attending) is because Syllabus ‘Religious Education’ was (as the Department has already stated) ‘designed to meet the religious instruction requirements of the Catholic Church’.
Catholic Diocesan Advisers do not hold in-service days alongside the PDST for syllabus history or mathematics nor do they hold educational conferences for these subjects or provide resources and support for the mainstream syllabi in these subjects.
This is because no other subject such as history or geography has been developed to meet the religious formation requirements of the Catholic Church. Subjects such as history or geography do not have Constitutional conditions in relation to funding (Article 44.2.4).
It was at one of these in-service days attended by the PDST that a teacher was provided with an anti abortion video to show her class during Syllabus ‘Religious Education’. This has constitutional issues because the Department funds the PDST.
Atheist Ireland raised this issue with the Oireachtas Education Committee, who forwarded it to the Department of Education and asked the Department to respond to us and copy them in on the response. In the Department’s response, they relied on their own definitions of ‘Religious Instruction’ and ‘religious Education,’ which are different to the definitions of the Courts. We have responded to the Department. You can read the entire correspondence at this link.
This is the third of three articles that include the content of this report. Here are links to all three articles: