New guidelines for Catholic sex education during curriculum SPHE – Atheist Ireland writes to Minister

The Catholic Education Partnership has issued Guidelines and Resources for Boards of Management and teachers regarding the teaching Catholic sex education during curriculum SPHE in second level schools.

You can access their Guidelines and Resources here.

As you will see, these Guidelines and Resources are explicitly Catholic and their effect is to indoctrinate students into accepting Catholic sex education as a basis for their sexuality.

Atheist Ireland has written about this to the Minister for Education, the Minister for Equality, and the Oireachtas Education Committee.

In those letters we highlighted the following:

Section 15 – 2 (b) of the Education Act 1998 obliges Board of Management to uphold the ‘characteristic spirit/ethos’ of the Patron. Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act obliges teachers to uphold the ‘ethos’ of the school.

Because of Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act teachers will be legally obliged to teach Catholic sex education integrated into or alongside curriculum SPHE. Once the Board of Management puts a policy in place that reflects the ‘ethos’ of the Patron in relation to the teaching of SPHE (S.15.2 (b)) Education Act 1998), teachers will be legally obliged to comply with it or face discipline.

Students and their parents will not know when curriculum sex education ends and Catholic sex education begins. Students will be left with a choice between Catholic sex education or no sex education at all.

Many parents and students object on conscientious grounds to Catholic sex education because it undermines human dignity. They campaigned for marriage equality and access to abortion and won’t accept Catholic evangelisation and indoctrination when their children are accessing their right to objective sex education in publicly funded schools. Many Catholic parents do not agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality, and they also object on conscience grounds.

In 2019 the Oireachtas Education Committee recommended in their Report that the Education Act 1998 should be amended to ensure curriculum RSE at primary level and SPHE at second level was delivered objectively.

They stated in their Report that:

14. The Committee recommends that the Education Act 1998 be amended or at least reviewed, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled.

15.The Committee recommends that the necessary legislative amendments required to remove the role of ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of the RSE and SPHE curriculums be made as soon as possible and at the latest by the end of 2019.

The courts in Ireland have never found that a school’s ‘characteristic spirit/ethos’ can be integrated or taught alongside curriculum subjects. They said the exact opposite in the Supreme Court in 1998 in the Campaign to Separate Church and State case.

In that case, Justice Barrington said that it was no longer practical to combine religious and academic education the way that a religious order had done in the past. He said that students who attended a school with a religious ethos could expect to be influenced by the religious ethos of the school. He referred to such a religious ethos influencing students in the general atmosphere of the school not during academic subjects (J. Barrington – Campaign case 1998 pages 26,27).

The Education Act 1998 and the Employment Equality Act fail to define exactly what is meant by ‘characteristic spirit/ethos’ and exactly what citizens should expect from the legislation. The people and organisations with power and privilege use that to their advantage and undermine the Constitutional and human rights of minorities because the state has failed to be clear what to expect from legislation.

We recognise that publicly funded schools are legally entitled to their religious ethos, but it has constitutional conditions. A balance should be achieved that protects the conscience of teachers and also minorities who have no choice but to attend publicly funded schools with a religious ethos. Minorities should not be penalised because of their convictions.

The Supreme Court found in RE Article 26 and the Employment Equality Act that:

“It would therefore appear that it is constitutionally permissible to make distinctions or discriminations on grounds of religious profession belief or status insofar—but only insofar—as this may be necessary to give life and reality to the guarantee of the free profession and practice of religion contained in the Constitution.”

It is not necessary to oblige all teachers to teach Catholic sex education alongside/integrated into curriculum RSE/SPHE. Catholic sex education can be taught during religion classes. Nor is it necessary to teach Catholic sex education to all students during curriculum RSE/SPHE. A balance can be achieved that protects the Constitutional and human rights of all teachers and students.

The Supreme Court found in the Burke case in relation to the Leaving Certificate during Covid, that the rights of parents were a foundational pillar of the Constitution. There are conditions to the funding of schools with a religious ethos; those conditions are there to protect the rights of parents and their children. A balance has not been achieved in publicly funded schools with a religious ethos because the state has failed in its Constitutional duty to respect the rights of all parents.

Justice Charleton stated that:

An overall saver in the constitutional text is that the State, in providing for free primary education and in endeavouring to assist post-primary education in various forms, have “due regard … for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.” This provision reflects a concern for upholding parental authority; a foundational pillar of the
Constitution that accords with Article 41 recognising the family as “the natural primary
and fundamental unit group of” Irish society. Hence, society is built around the family.
(J. Charleton – Supreme Court – Burke case January 2022 – para4)

If Catholic sex education is taught during/alongside curriculum RSE/SPHE parents will be left with no choice but to exercise their right under Article 44.2.4 to remove their children from religious instruction.

This puts students in schools in a position whereby they lose precious teaching time during religion classes and now also RSE/SPHE. This is religious discrimination (Art44.2.3 & Art40.1) as students from minority backgrounds get less teaching time than students from the dominant religion in the school. Children should not be penalised because of their parents’ convictions. They have a right to access any curriculum subject without being indoctrinated into Catholicism.

In the Court of Appeal in the Burke case it was stated that:

191. The Court considers that the case law demonstrates that the relationship between parents, the State and the child as envisaged by Article 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…”

We ask you to look at the rights, duties and powers in relation to children and teachers from minority backgrounds in publicly funded schools as it is your duty to protect them. Can you please let us know your thoughts on this and if you have any intention of amending the Education Act and the Employment Equality Act to ensure all students have access to objective sex education as guaranteed by the European Social Charter.

Atheist Ireland