Secular Education and Human Rights, by Jane Donnelly

Jane Donnelly, Atheist Ireland Education Officer, wrote this article for the magazine of the Humanist Association of Ireland.

Education is a human right. According to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Irish State absolves itself of the responsibility to educate its children, and delegates that responsibility to private bodies and institutions.

The Irish State does this in a way that denies Irish parents their human rights. Catholic schools and indeed any school that operates a religious integrated curriculum breach the basic human rights of parents seeking a secular education for their child. A religious ethos is not in accordance with Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The education policy of Atheist Ireland is “secular education based on human rights law”. It is unacceptable in a democracy that, in order to access an education, our children leave their human rights at the school gate. We will not accept anything less than equality before the law and equal protection of the law without discrimination of any kind as this is our basic human right.

Asking the Catholic Church to divest itself of patronage of a small number of schools may potentially help some of our citizens in some parts of our Republic, but it does not resolve the core issue of equality for all of our citizens throughout our Republic. Indeed, with the introduction of new VEC Community schools, the State is simultaneously assisting the Catholic Church’s efforts to gain and keep adherents.

Secular Education and Human Rights

In Ireland 98% of schools are religious. According to a 2009 Government Report to the UN, 3,027 out of 3,302 schools are Catholic. These schools are permitted by law to operate a religious ethos. This means integrating religion into all subjects and the general school day. It also means not delivering the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. And these schools can lawfully discriminate on entry in order to uphold their ethos.

All these schools are funded by the State as there is no parallel system of non denominational State schools. There is no obligation under human rights law for any State to fund religious schools, or for any parent to have a right to a State-funded religious education for their child. The State’s obligation is to respect the religious and philosophical convictions of all parents.

In July 2008 the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland that most of our schools, by operating a religious integrated curriculum, deprive parents (both religious and non religious) of access to a secular education. This is discriminatory, breaches the right to freedom of conscience, the rights of the child and the right to equality before the law without discrimination.

In August 2009 our Government informed the UN that Irish schools have traditionally welcomed and continue to welcome pupils from all backgrounds.  But in these schools, The Government puts its power, prestige and financial support behind a particular religious belief. The indirect coercive pressure of minorities to conform  results in non-religious parents getting their children baptised in order to access their human right to an education.

The European Court of human rights has found that a State cannot absolve itself of the responsibility to educate by delegating that responsibility to private bodies and institutions.  But that is exactly what the Irish State does; it absolves itself of the responsibility to educate and then fails to provide legislation to protect the human rights of the non-religious who have no option and indeed are obliged to send their children to private state funded religious schools.

The Irish State is obliged under human rights law to guarantee a right of access to education institutions existing at a given time. Section 7 – 3 (c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 permits schools to give preference to co-religionists in the event of a shortage of places. This does not constitute a right of access for non-religious parents, especially when 98% of schools are religious.

The state is also obliged to ensure that the curriculum is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner which they completely ignore as their policy is to guarantee and oblige schools to uphold the religious ethos of the patron.

So let’s have a look at what the Catholic Church itself, as the patron of most of our schools, says about Catholic education.

The Religious Ethos of Catholic Education

In 2009 the Vatican said that: “Catholic schools are characterised by the institutional link they keep with the Church hierarchy, which guarantees that the instruction and education be grounded in the principles of the Catholic faith and imparted by teachers of right doctrine and probity of life… In this setting, human culture as a whole is harmonised with the message of salvation, so that the pupils gradually acquire a knowledge of the world, life and humanity that is be enlightened by the Gospel.

The Vatican added that: “The marginalization of religious education in schools is equivalent to assuming – at least in practice – an ideological position that can lead pupils into error or do them a disservice. Moreover, if religious education is limited to a presentation of the different religions, in a comparative and “neutral” way, it creates confusion or generates religious relativism or indifferentism.”

So most of the schools in our Republic are characterised by the institutional link they keep with what one Irish Times writer recently described as agents of a foreign State. And the ‘ideological position’ that the Vatican disparagingly refers to is secular education. The purpose of a secular education is to protect the basic fundamental human rights of all parents in the education system.

Irish Catholic Primary school policy is that: “The children of Catholic parents have first claim on admission to Catholic schools. Wherever possible, in keeping with their ethos, and providing that they have places and resources catholic schools welcome children of other faiths or none.”

In 2008 the Catholic Bishops Conference said: “In a climate of growing secularism, Catholic schools are distinguished by faith in the transcendent mystery of God as the source of all that exists and as the meaning of human existence. This faith is not simply the subject-matter of particular lessons but forms the foundation of all that we do and the horizon of all that takes place in the school.”

In 2009 the then Bishop of Limerick Donal Murray, chair of the Bishops’ Department of Catholic Education, said: “The suggestion that religious belief is not relevant to large areas of life is the essence of secularism… this amounts to a denial or at least a profound misrepresentation of God. A god who is irrelevant to some spheres or aspects of the creation is not God at all.”

Bishop Murray also said that he hoped that the Government would put in place conditions to ensure that the right to opt out from religious instruction was recognised in practice. So even the Catholic Church recognises that there are issues for parents with opting out their child from religious instruction in Catholic schools despite the Constitutional right to do so.

Bishop Murray went further and said that if the family find the Catholic ethos of the school unacceptable, then one would have to acknowledge that this kind of school is simply not suitable for that family. So we now have the agents of a foreign State telling the Government of a Republic that some of its citizens Constitutional rights are not being protected in publicly funded schools, and if these citizens did not accept the evangelising mission of Catholic education they should go somewhere else.

‘Belief Nurturing’ in the New VEC Schools

The ‘somewhere else’ now seems to include the new VEC Community schools where religious formation is guaranteed during the school day. The Dept of Education is refusing to disclose exactly what agreement they have made with the Catholic Church over Catholic religious formation in these New VEC Community Schools.

There is a multi-belief religious education programme planned, and separation of children into groups for religious formation or ‘belief nurturing’ which is the new term. The children of non-religious parents will be being separated for belief nurturing because their parents do not have a religious belief. We will be all evangelising together in an atmosphere of mutual respect!

The result of these types of schools can only be that the majority sect will be preferred in approximate proportion to their representation, while the smaller sects will suffer commensurate discrimination. The children of non-religious parents will be identified by their disbelief and non-conformity in an atmosphere where the teachers are trained in Catholic institutions and the majority of students identify with them.

As long as the subject matter is sectarian in character these results cannot be avoided. We already know that this type of procedure deters parents from withdrawing their children from religious instruction in denominational schools as this is exactly what happened to our school system as it was originally set up as non-denominational with provision for separate religious instruction.

So, despite being in control of 3027 primary schools in the Republic, minus whatever small number they may agree to divest themselves of patronage, the Catholic Church has managed to ensure their evangelising mission will be an integral part of the school day of these New VEC Community schools as they believe that “Agnosticism/atheism/religious indifference can be interpreted as flight from the ultimate question of existence, that is, God.”

To repeat, the education policy of Atheist Ireland is “secular education based on human rights law”. It is unacceptable in a democracy that, in order to access an education, our children leave their human rights at the school gate. We will not accept anything less than equality before the law and equal protection of the law without discrimination of any kind as this is our basic human right.

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