UN asks Ireland about children’s rights including secular education

This week Atheist Ireland was in Geneva for the examination of Ireland under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Atheist Ireland, along with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, made a Submission to the UN Committee in relation to religious discrimination in the education system in Ireland.

We and other Irish NGOs had a meeting with members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child before the session with Ireland started. During the session, we got all of our questions asked, along with the follow-up questions we wanted, with regard tis secular education. Specifically, the UN Committee highlighted the following areas for the Irish State to address:

  • The right to not attend religious instruction
  • Religious discrimination in access to schools
  • Availability of non-denominational and multi-denominational schools
  • Sexual and reproductive sex education

The right to not attend religious instruction

During the session members of the UN Committee asked the Irish State about Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution and the right to not attend religious instruction. This was part of the List of Issues.

Civil rights and freedoms (arts. 7, 8 and 13–17)

Please inform the Committee on the measures taken to ensure accessible options for children to opt out of religious classes and ensure access to appropriate alternatives to such classes, in accordance with the needs of children of minority faith or non-faith backgrounds.

The Irish delegation replied that it was up to each individual school to implement the right to opt out. During a break we reminded the Committee members that the right is to ‘not attend’ which is different to ‘opt out.’ The next day under questioning by the Committee the Department referred to the right to ‘withdraw’. The word ‘withdraw’ could mean physically leaving the classroom, but it is more ambiguous than the actual constitutional right, which is to “not attend”.

Access to schools, non-denominational schools, and sex education

During the session member of the UN Committee also asked the Irish State other questions about religious discrimination in education. These included:

Education, leisure and cultural activities (arts. 28–31)

Education – 27. Please inform the Committee about the measures taken to:

(b) Assess the impact of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act in ensuring children’s right to education without discrimination, including in cases in which admission can be denied on religious grounds;

(c) Increase the availability of non-denominational and multi-denominational schools;

(e) Revise the content of sexual and reproductive health education to include material on non-discrimination, contraception, gender stereotypes, sexual orientation and gender identity.

With regard to the Admission to Schools Act 2018, the State told the Committee that the Act applies to all recognised schools. But they did not say that the part of the Act that ends religious discrimination in access applies only to Catholic primary schools. Minority faith schools and secondary schools can continue to discriminate. During a break we informed Committee members about this. The next day the Committee asked Ireland whether the Admission to Schools Act still allows religious discrimination in access to secondary schools, also whether Equal Status Act allows religious discrimination in access on the basis of ethos. The state delegation said it would consult with colleagues and respond to this in writing.

With regard to increasing the availability of non-denominational and multi-denominational schools, the Irish delegation answered that they intended to open up 400 multi denominational schools, but ignored the part of the question about non-denominational schools. During a break we informed the Committee members that under the Programme for Government the Irish state has dropped its previous commitment to also open non-denominational schools. We also reminded Minister Roderic O’Gorman of this. The next day under further questioning the Irish delegation confirmed that they were only opening up multi-denominational schools, and had no plans to open non-denominational schools.

With regard to access to comprehensive and neutral Relationship and Sexuality education, the Committee suggested the State amend Section 15-2(b) of the Education Act 1998 to ensure comprehensive and neutral RSE without a religious ethos permeating the curriculum subject. The state delegation replied that schools were legally obliged to deliver all areas on the RSE curriculum and leave nothing out. What they did not tell the Committee was that schools with a religious ethos could still legally teach Catholic sex education alongside/integrated into the state curriculum.

Next steps

This was our busiest UN visit yet and among our most successful in terms of having our issues raised and answered. The next step is that the UN Committee will issue its Concluding Observations on the examination of Ireland in about three weeks. After this there will also be a follow-up to question Ireland on how it is implementing the Concluding Observations. There will be an opportunity for NGOs to get involved in this follow up. Atheist Ireland will continue to engage with the UN under the various treaties that Ireland has ratified to ensure that they abide by their international obligations.

Atheist Ireland