The Constitutional rights of atheist families in Irish schools
Article 44.2.1 of the Constitution protects the right to freedom of conscience. This right is not just confined to a religious conscience. Atheists, humanists, and secular parents have exactly the same Constitutional rights with regard to our philosophical convictions as religious parents have with regard to their religious beliefs.
In the High Court in 2011, in the case of AB v Children’s Hospital Temple Street & CD & EF, Justice Hogan stated that:
“35. There is thus no doubt at all but that parents have the constitutional right to raise their children by reference to their own religious and philosophical views.”
“27. Along with the guarantee of free speech in Article 40.6.i, Article 44.2.1 guarantees freedom of conscience and the free practice of religion. Taken together, these constitutional provisions ensure that, subject to limited exceptions, all citizens have complete freedom of philosophical and religious thought, along with the freedom to speak their mind and to say what they please in all such matters….”
Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution protects the right to attend state-funded schools without attending religious instruction. The purpose of this is to ensure that the State, in its decisions on funding of schools, safeguards the rights of atheists and religious minorities in schools.
The Supreme Court has said, in the 1998 Campaign case, that Article 42.1 (parents’ rights regarding the education of their children) must be read in the context of Article 44.2.4 (the right to not attend religious instruction).
The Education Act obliges the Minister for Education to leave reasonable instruction time for subjects relating to or arising from the characteristic spirit (ethos) of the school. Schools use this time for either Religious Instruction or other courses based on their ethos.
The State has consistently protected the right of schools to do this. However, the State has consistently ignored the need to balance that right with the Constitutional right of atheist and minority faith parents to protect their children from being indoctrinated by religion against their conscience.
This is among the issues that Atheist Ireland has raised in complaints to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee about the misuse of public funds regarding religious instruction in schools. We will continue to lobby on this and to highlight the outcomes of our lobbying.