The constitutional rights of nonreligious parents in Irish schools

For years Atheist Ireland has been campaigning to protect the constitutional rights of all families in the education system. Parents have positive inalienable rights regarding the education of their children, and nonreligious parents have the same positive rights as religious parents.

These rights come under:

  • Article 41.1 and 42.1 “The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society… The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents…”
  • Article 44.2.1 “Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.”
  • Article 42.4 “The State shall provide for free primary education and shall endeavour to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative, and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities or institutions with due regard, however, for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.”
  • Article 44.2.4 “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.”

However, in practice, atheist and non religious families are discriminated against in the education system and treated as second class citizens. The State gives privilege to religious families and supports discrimination against atheist and non religious families.

We are also campaigning to ensure that the State recognises the judgements in the Supreme Court and the High Court in relation to the rights of parents and their children. At present the Department of Education ignores Supreme Court judgements despite the fact that they are binding authority.

The courts have defined the terms religious and moral Education (Article 42), religious and moral formation (Article 42.4) and religious instruction (Article 44.2.4). The Department of Education cannot define these rights according to their own understanding, which is what they are now doing.

We are also trying to get the Department of Education to recognise the Irish version of the Constitution. The Irish version of the Constitution takes legal precedence and is far more nuanced in relation to the rights of parents than the English version.

For example under Article 42.4 the English version obliges the state to have “with due regard, however, for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation”. The Irish version translates directly into “as regards the formation of the mind in religious and moral affairs’.

The Irish version is far more nuanced than the English version and it means that the Department of Education and the NCCA have absolutely no right to decide for parents what is or is not suitable religious and moral formation and education for their children.

Here are some other relevant distinctions in the four Articles in the Constitution that impact on the rights of families in the education system. They are from ‘Bunreacht na hÉireann: a study of the Irish text’, written by Micheál Ó Cearúil and published in 1999 by All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution.

Article 41.1 (inalienable rights of the family)

  • ‘All positive law’ is expressed as ‘aon reacht daonna’ or ‘any human statute/law’.
• ‘Indispensable’ is expressed as ‘éigeantach’, usually translated as ‘compulsory’.
• ‘To protect’ is expressed as ‘a chaomhnú’, ‘to cherish’/‘to preserve’.

Article 42.1 (rights of parents in education)

  • The word ‘educator’ is expressed as ‘múinteoir’, which means ‘teacher’.
  • ‘To respect’ is expressed as ‘gan cur isteach ar’ (‘not to interfere with’).
 The phrase ‘the religious and moral (etc) education of their children’ appears as ‘i gcúrsaí
creidimh, moráltachta (etc)’ which means ‘in religious, moral (etc) affairs’.
  • ‘Religious’ and ‘moral’ are separated by a comma, therefore explicitly treated as separate
matters, in the Irish text.
  • ‘Education’ appears as ‘Oideachas’. Dinneen’s entry under this headword includes
‘advice, instruction, teaching, education’. DIL translates ‘oidecht’ and ‘oides’ respectively
as ‘teaching, training’ and ‘teaching, instruction’.

Article 42.4 (due regard for rights of parents when funding schools)

• ‘Endeavour’ is expressed as ‘iarracht a dhéanamh’, ‘make an effort’.
  • ‘Corporate’ is expressed as ‘cumannta’, ‘communal’.
  • ‘In the matter of religious and moral formation’ is expressed as ‘maidir le múnlú na haigne i
gcúrsaí creidimh is moráltachta’ (‘as regards the formation of the mind in religious and moral

Article 44.2.4 (right to not attend religious instruction when funding schools)

‘Legislation .. shall not discriminate’ is expressed as ‘ní cead’, or ‘it is not permitted to’.
  • ‘To affect prejudicially’ is expressed as ‘dhéanamh dochair do’, or ‘do harm to’.
  • ‘Attend’ is expressed as ‘A fhreastal’. Ó Dónaill cites ‘an scoil a fhreastal, to attend school’ and ‘freastal ar léachtaí, to attend lectures’ as examples of ‘freastail’, ‘attend’, in the sense of ‘be present at’.
  • ‘Religious Instruction’ is expressed as ‘Teagasc creidimh’. ‘Teagasc’ is translated as ‘teaching, instruction’ by Ó Dónaill, who cites ‘teagasc ábhair, teaching of a subject’.
Atheist Ireland