Secular schools would treat everyone equally

In Ireland, religious discrimination in education has become part of our culture. That is because of the deference of successive governments to the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has no issue with discriminating against minorities on the basis of religion in order to control the education system. The Catholic bishops are on record as objecting to the state promoting a pluralist approach to religious education.

But evangelising children while they access their right to education is not part of the values of a democratic pluralist republic. So why is the state funding the evangelising mission of the catholic church?

Pointing at other countries that fund faith schools does not justify this behaviour, because other countries have a base or parallel system of state education that is available to all, and faith schools are an alternative to that.

Ireland does not have such an education system. In practice, religious schools are the system, nor an alternative. For many children it is a Catholic education or no education at all. We can and should challenge our education system because it does not reflect democratic pluralist values in our republic.

Atheist Ireland supports secular education, that does not discriminate against families on the basis of religion nor does it evangelise children into a religious understanding of the world.

The state once promoted secular education

At one stage prescribing a programme of secular instruction was part of the duty of the Minister for Education. The 1965 Rules for National Schools states that the Minister should prescribe a programme of secular instruction (Rule 70), that Rule is still in place. State secular instruction that reflects our democratic pluralist republic had value.

Earlier than that, the Intermediate Education Act of 1878 states that it shall be the function of the Board of a school to promote secular education and that the Board shall not make any payment to the managers of any school unless it be shown to the satisfaction of the Board that no pupil attending such school is permitted to remain in attendance during the time of any religious instruction which the parents or guardians of such pupil shall not have sanctioned, and that the time for giving such religious instruction is so fixed that no pupil not remaining in attendance is excluded directly or indirectly from the advantages of the secular education given in the school. That piece of legislation is still in place.

At some stage in this country we recognised and promoted state secular education on the basis that it reflected our values. Our pluralist Republic has values, and we do not need to promote any particular religious belief in order to find value in our society.

In principle, secular education was seen by the state as a good thing, and something that is the responsibility of the state to promote and protect. The reasons for protecting secular education was to ensure that the rights of all families were protected and that the state did not discriminate or endow any religion.

Access to secular insruction delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner

One of the main differences between a Catholic education and secular education is that a secular education system would not discriminate between children on the basis of their religion.

In Ireland,  publicly funded schools with a Catholic ethos can legally discriminate in access, even when minorities have no choice but to attend their only local school. Secular schools would not discriminate against children on the basis of religion in access. All children would have equal access to a secular school and religious discrimination would not be permitted as it undermines human dignity.

In the majority of state funded schools a Catholic ethos is taught alongside/integrated into the state curriculum. Parents are not informed that this is happening. Secular schools would teach the state curriculum, and would not teach a particular religion as truth or integrate any religion into curriculum subjects as that would undermine the rights of parents and their children.

Secular schools would not develop values in students to enable them to see the relevance of religion to their lives and relationships. This is to ensure that the freedom of conscience of all parents and their children is protected and valued as a secular principle.

Secular schools would not evangelise children into a religious understanding of the world that is the job of parents if they wish to bring their children up within a religion. The Constitution recognises that parents are the main educators of their children.

The mission of schools with a catholic ethos is to evangelise. In Ireland catholic schools impose their views on children against the wishes of their parents. Most parents have no choice where they sent their children to school, it is catholic education or no education at all. In a democratic pluralist republic families are simply left with catholic education on a take it or leave it basis.

Freedom of conscience for teachers and students

Secular schools would uphold the right to freedom of conscience of parents, students and teachers. In Catholic schools teachers can be fired or disciplined if they don’t uphold the ethos of the catholic school. In order to gain employment in the vast majority of publicly funded National schools teachers are obliged to have the Catholic Certificate in religious studies. In all publicly funded school teachers are legally obliged under Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act to uphold the religious ethos of the school.

In a secular school no teacher would be obliged to hold a Certificate in any religion in order to gain employment or be obliged to evangelise children or face dismissal or discipline. Promotion would be on the basis of merit and the ability to recognise and protect the rights of all families in the school.

Secular schools would view equality and inclusion as the basis of human rights and human dignity, and not the teachings of a particular religion.

At present our education system undermines human dignity and the right to freedom of conscience. It does not promote pluralism, the Catholic bishops are on the record as being opposed to religious pluralism in the education system. They stated that:

“In these secular approaches to Religious Education, reason is primary. Children are invited to stand back from religions and beliefs. In Catholic schools, Revelation is primary and the learner’s experience and reason are brought into dialogue with it. The NCCA curriculum will invite Catholic children to engage in the domain of religion in a way that undermines their capacity to immerse themselves in their own religion.
4. There is a presumed sceptical neutrality of reason in relation to religious beliefs. This is problematic for Catholic religious education because it suggests that religious meaning is determined by what one believes to be true.

5. These approaches require teachers to adopt and promote a pluralist approach to religion. This is an approach to religion that goes against the philosophical basis of Catholic religious education. Such a contradiction would place teachers in a very difficult position where conflicting philosophical approaches to religious education would have the potential to create significant confusion.”

The state should require teachers to adopt and promote a pluralist approach to religion in any publicly funded school in a democratic pluralist republic. The courts have said that teachers cannot discriminate against students or unilaterally impose values not shared by and contrary to the wishes of students and their parents.

Catholic schools discriminate and impose values on students contrary to the wishes of their parents, by teaching catholic education alongside/integrated into curriculum subjects and refusing to supervise children outside religious teaching.

Minorities have a constitutional right to send their children to any publicly funded school and not attend religious instruction. That right is simply ignored by catholic schools because the Catholic church is not committed to pluralism in the education system.

Atheist Ireland campaigns for secular education where all families are treated equally and with dignity and are not discriminated against on the grounds of religion.


Atheist Ireland