Atheist Ireland replies to Minister for Education re VEC Community Schools
In April, Atheist Ireland wrote to the Minister for Education about Document No. 154 of material released to RTE under the Freedom of Information Act.
This document outlined how parents in a VEC community school were told that: “It is true that all morality is based on love – of God and ones neighbor. This will be a central theme in the Religious Education programme. However, moral values are taught within a religious context; we cannot divorce them from that setting.”
In June, the Department of Education replied, suggesting that these comments “are probably best considered in light of the Primary School curriculum”. We have now sent the following reply to that response from the Department.
Dear Minister Quinn,
Thank you for the reply from Ronnie Ryan on 7 June to our email of 3 April. This reply does not diminish our concerns about the Religious Education programme in the new VEC Community schools. Instead, it confirms that the State is failing in its duty to protect the Constitutional and Human Rights of those parents who seek a secular education for their children, and that your Department seems to be unaware of basic human rights principles.
In our email of 3 April, we raised concerns about a memo called Document 105, sent in 2008 by Ian Murphy to the Dept of Education and the VEC, about a meeting with parents of children in Scoil Choilm CNS about the Religious Education programme being developed for the new VEC Community national Schools.
The two concerns that we raised were:
- When parents asked whether the programme should be called moral education, they were told: “It is true that all morality is based on love – of God and one’s neighbour. This will be a central theme in the Religious Education programme. However, moral values are taught within a religious context: we cannot divorce them from that setting.”
- When parents asked whether they may withdraw their child from this Religious Education programme, they were given an answer that did not include the word ‘Yes’, that did not inform them that this was a constitutional right, and that instead actively encouraged them not to withdraw their child.
We pointed out that this breached two human rights principles:
- Teaching moral values within a religious context to the children of secular parents breaches their human rights under Article II of Protocol 1 of the European Convention: “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
- As the Irish Human Rights Commission reminded the State last year, “The State must take sufficient care that information and knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner with the aim of enabling pupils to develop a critical mind with regard to religion in a calm atmosphere which is free of any misplaced proselytism.”
The primary school curriculum
Your reply on 7 June said that the above comments “are probably best considered in light of the Primary School curriculum”, which you said “makes specific reference to the importance of religious education as one of the areas of the curriculum (p.27) in supporting the spiritual development of the child. Reference is also made to the role of religious education in enabling the child ‘to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God’ (p.58).”
We have, as you suggested, considered these comments in light of the curriculum. Parts of the curriculum do indeed help to explain how the comments made in Document 105 came to be made. However, this does not justify the comments made in Document 105. Instead, it shows that the curriculum itself also breaches basic human rights principles, by failing to respect the rights of parents who want a secular education for their children.
For example, the concept of ‘spirituality’ is not defined in the curriculum, or indeed in the Education Act, and the curriculum simply assumes a definition of spirituality that not all citizens share. Worse than that, the curriculum acknowledges that it is doing this, when it states on page 27 that: “For most people in Ireland, the totality of the human condition cannot be understood or explained merely in terms of physical and social experience…” From then on, the curriculum ignores the human rights of any Irish parents not included in this category of “most” people.
Then, in one of the sections that you have quoted in your letter to us, page 57 of the curriculum states: “In seeking to develop the full potential of the individual, the curriculum takes into account the child’s affective, aesthetic, spiritual, moral and religious needs. The spiritual dimension is a fundamental aspect of individual experience, and its religious and cultural expression is an inextricable part of Irish culture and history. Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.”
The first sentence of this quote refers to spiritual, moral and religious needs as distinct concepts. The second sentence, in essence, says that religion is one expression of spirituality. And the third sentence refers to the concepts of “spiritual and moral values” (which are taught together in the context of religious education, despite them being distinct concepts) and “coming to a knowledge of God” (which expresses a subjective belief as knowledge, and which can be contrasted with a later reference to “the beliefs of others” rather than the knowledge of others).
There are many other examples of the curriculum failing to respect the rights of parents who want a secular education for their children. It includes many references to the concepts of (a) religion, god, belief and spirituality; (b) morality, ethics, equality and fairness; and (c) relationships, society, civics and pluralism. These are all distinct though related concepts, and the curriculum is not consistent in the way it assumes that they relate to each other.
We are preparing a more complete analysis of these aspects of the curriculum, and we will send this to you when we have it completed.
Overview of the problem
The term ‘spiritual’ in the primary school curriculum and the Education Act 1998 is not inclusive of all citizens. The Constitution does not refer to the words spiritual or religious in Article 42.3.2. It does not refer to ‘the children of religious parents’; it states ‘the children’. The state does not recognise or respect the philosophical convictions of those parents that seek secular education for their children and is failing in its obligation under Article 42.3.2. The state combines moral and religious education and obliges schools to promote moral and spiritual development of students having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school. The primary school curriculum claims that this type of religious education has a unique role in supporting the general aims of primary education. This is not neutral and impartial and cannot be considered as a pluralist position.
Constitutional and human rights principles are the starting point to ensure the fundamental rights of parents and children are respected in all schools and any new RE course. We note that at no stage in the action research for the RE course in the new VEC Community schools is the Irish Human Rights Commission asked to give input and advice on what is needed to ensure basic human rights. Despite the state claiming that these New VEC Community schools are inclusive and have respect for all beliefs and none there is no legal obligation on any board of management to interpret that respect in relation to human rights law.
The term “characteristic spirit” (ethos) is not defined in the Education Act 1998 and can be interpreted to mean anything. There is no obligation to ensure that the ‘Goodness me! Goodness you!’ RE course is in compliance with the Toledo Guiding Principles. Finally there is no legal guarantee that this Religious education course will be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner which is a basic human rights principle.
There are no secular or non-denominational schools in Ireland (page 51, Report from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism). The state is therefore obliged to ensure that the philosophical convictions of secular parents are respected in all schools regardless of their ethos. The religious education that is referred to in the primary school curriculum and the ‘Goodness me! Goodness you!’ RE course breaches the constitutional and human rights of those parents that seek secular education for their children. Consequently the obligation on the State is to ensure that parents can opt out their children from this course without discrimination, and while still receiving a moral education that is distinct from religious education.
What we are requesting
Document 105 states, as an explicitly ‘true’ fact, the subjective belief that all morality is based on love of God. It states that moral values are taught within a religious context and cannot be divorced from that setting. It shows that parents are not honestly informed about their constitutional right to opt their children out of religious education. And we are only aware of this because RTE received this document under the Freedom of Information Act.
It is clear from Document 105 (and it remains clear when Document 105 is read in light of the primary school curriculum) that the State is failing in its duty to respect the right of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions. The State is also failing in its duty under Article 42.3.2 of the Irish Constitution to ensure that all children have access to a moral education.
We request that you take immediate steps to ensure that the constitutional and human rights of those parents that seek secular education for their children are respected in all schools in Ireland. We also request that you inform us of what specific steps you will take to rectify the specific situation addressed in this correspondence. We are sending a copy of this letter to the Irish Human Rights Commission and also intend to raise the issue with the United Nations and the Council of Europe.