How to Opt Your Child Out of Religion Class
While we are campaigning for a secular Irish education system based on human rights law, you may wish to opt your child out of religion in your current school. Here are some key facts that you will find helpful, and sample letters that you can use to tell your school that you want to opt your child out of religion.
- Opting out of Religion classes
- Opting out of Religion in second level ETB schools and Colleges
- The Right to Privacy
- Supervision / Religious Discrimination
- Religious Service and other issues.
- Ethos / Religious integrated curriculum at Primary and Second Level
- Religious Education Course at Second Level
In Ireland parents are responsible for the supervision of their children if they opt them out of religion classes or religious worship. It is impossible to opt out of a religious ethos. Schools are not obliged to supervise children outside the religion class or religious services, and another subject is not provided. In essence this means that opting out is a theoretical illusion and not operable in practice. For some reason, all schools still claim that they are inclusive.
At Primary and second level, schools will not supervise children outside the religion class or provide another subject. This includes ETB schools and colleges at second level. They all claim that they are inclusive but they still require students to sit at the back of the religion class and they refuse to provide another subject.
In schools with a Catholic ethos (the vast majority), the Catholic Bishops object to promoting even pluralism among religious beliefs within schools, as they believe that it goes against the philosophical basis of Catholic religious education. The Church accepts that freedom of religion is the bedrock of western democracies, but insists that promoting pluralism within schools is against their ethos.
Human rights law says that children have a human right to a neutral studying environment in all schools (multi-denominational / denominational schools). There are no non-denominational schools in Ireland and Home schooling is not a valid option. You have a human right under the European Convention to opt your child out of religion without disclosing your religious or philosophical convictions. You also have a right to opt your child out of religion classes if you believe it will cause your child to face a conflict of allegiance between the school and your religious or philosophical convictions (ECHR Mansur & Others v Turkey, Sept 2014).
Secularism is regarded as a philosophical conviction protected by Article 9 and Article II of Protocol 1 (the right to education) of the European Convention and Article 18 of the UN International Covenant of Civil & Political Rights. Article 42.1 of the Irish Constitution obliges the State to respect the inalienable rights of parents, at this stage nobody is claiming that this only applies to religious parents. There is a positive obligation on the State to respect the philosophical convictions of atheist/secular parents and their children under Article II of Protocol 1 of the European Convention.
2. Opting out of Religion classes
You have a Constitutional right under Article 44.2.4 and Article 42.1 of the Irish Constitution to remove your child from religion in schools. No school has the right to force your child to take religion classes and they cannot make it a condition of access either. You have a Constitutional right to attend any school in receipt of state funding and opt your child out of anything that is against your conscience and that includes religion classes.
Section 30 (2) -(e) of the Education Act 1998 permits you to opt your child out of any subject that is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student. This section of the Education Act 1998 does not refer to religion classes in particular so you can opt your child out of any subject that is against your conscience and in any publicly funded school. Schools are not obliged to deliver the state curriculum in a neutral and objective manner, in practice this means that it is impossible to opt your children out of the elements of religion that are integrated into the state curriculum and that are part of the school day.
It is a good idea to meet with the school to discuss opting your child out of the religious education class but you are not obliged to do so as you can deal with them in writing if preferred. Always ensure that any arrangements made with the school are put in writing. (sample letters are below this article)
3. Opting out of Religion in second level ETB schools and Colleges
In February 2018 the Department of Education issued a Circular Letter on religion in ETB schools and colleges. This Circular Letter applied to all Community Schools, Non-designated Community Colleges and Designated Community Colleges. You can find the Circular Letter here.
The Circular Letter obliged every ETB school and college to find out, and implement, what parents want in relation to the religious education of their children.
Unfortunately, after lobbying from the Catholic Church, the ETBs, and the TUI, the Department issued another Circular Letter in October 2018. That new Circular Letter reversed some of the rights that were vindicated in the original one.
Under the first Circular Letter, parents could opt their children out of the following and choose another subject.
- Religious instruction classes
- The State Religious Education curriculum (exam subject)
- Combined religious instruction and the State Religious Education course.
The second Circular Letter undermined that, by claiming that there was a distinction between religious classes in one religion (which it called Religious Instruction) and religion classes in the State Religious Education curriculum, which it called Religious Education.
It said that the right to opt out of what it called Religious Education does not arise, and that the right to get another subject only applies to opting out of what it called Religious Instruction.
Neither of these claims are true. You still have the right to opt your child out of any religion classes, whatever the classes are called and whatever their content. That right is in the Constitution and the Education Act.
And there is no legal distinction between Religious Education and Religious Intruction. All classes are legally called Religious Intruction.
Despite this so-called clarification, the following is still in force from the first Circular Letter:
Schools are required to consult with parents.
4. Requirement to Consult Parents/pupils
In future instead of waiting for a parent to request a withdrawal and then having to make alternative arrangements for the pupil for the class periods concerned a school must establish the wishes of parents in relation to opting out of religious worship or instruction and where the pupil is over 18 establish the pupil’s wishes.
Schools cannot question parents about their decision to opt out their child or their religious or philosophical convictions:-
there is no basis for a school to intrude in that regard on the privacy of those who are opting for the alternative subject(s). The only information required is that the parent wants to opt for the alternative subject(s).
Schools are also obliged by the Circular Letter to inform parents regarding Religious Worship so that they can opt out their children.
6. Arrangements for Religious Worship
Best practice in relation to making appropriate arrangements for withdrawal from religious worship or events is to provide parents with information about religious worship in the school; its frequency, timing, duration and the nature of the services or events. Ideally this should be done at the start of every school year. Parents should be given the opportunity to advise the school of whether or not they want their child to participate in or be present during religious worship.
4. The Right to Privacy
The European Court of Human Rights have linked the Human Right to education with the Human Right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights so you are not obliged to discuss with the school your philosophical convictions. They have no right to question you on what you do or do not believe in. They are not the thought police and have absolutely no right to question your religious or philosophical convictions in order to see do you fit the legal criteria for opting out of religion.
All the school is required to know is that you are exercising your Constitutional and Human Right to opt your child out of the Religious Education class and any religious service. No school has a right to discuss the matter of opting out of Religious Education Class or Service with your child. You can make clear to them in writing that they are not to discuss the matter with your child.
5. Supervision / Religious Discrimination
Unfortunately you cannot opt out your child from Religious Education class without discrimination, despite the Constitutional right to attend any school in receipt of public funding. Parents are responsible for the supervision of their children if they opt them out of religion. Schools are not obliged to supervise your child outside the Religion class or provide another subject for your child. In Ireland there is no practical application given to the right to opt out of religion, opting out in practice is a theoretical illusion.
In our experience the majority of schools supervise children in the religion class. In Primary schools they usually do some of their own work. At second level the overall policy seems to be against students doing their homework or studying in the religion class. Schools make religion a core subject which means that students cannot pick another subject, this includes all types of ETB schools and colleges.
The reason given in all cases is that if students that are opted out of religion were permitted to do their homework, study, or pick another subject then all the other students taking religion would want to opt out as well. In essence they are trying to stem the flow of students opting out of religion by controlling the choices of those that do opt out. It is a policy of coercion and its purpose is the ensure that as many students as possible take religion in schools. They are also afraid that if they have not got enough students taking religion then the subject will have to be dropped.
Remember parents are responsible for the supervision of their child if they opt them out of religion so you can choose to let you child leave the school during these periods if they are old enough and responsible. This is only an option if you live near the school or where there is somewhere for the student to go while religion classes are taking place (such as the library or a local coffee shop).
Students that are over eighteen can legally opt out of religion and supervise themselves outside the school if required.
There are also many religious parents who as a matter of conscience do not wish to force their children to take religion classes and there are also many religious secularists. Religious parents have also got a right to opt their child out of religion in schools if they so wish. There are no apostasy laws in Ireland and Catholic parents are not legally obliged to follow Canon law if they send their children to a publicly funded school with a particular religious ethos.
6. Religious Service and other issues.
You can remove your child from any Religious Service or visit to Church nor can your child be forced to take part in any prayer service in the school or attend any prayer room.
Some schools state that different religious and non-religious festivals are regularly celebrated by the school community to develop understanding and respect for different traditions. Obliging your child to attend or take part in a celebration of religious ceremonies/festival breaches your human rights and you can opt out of it.
The Toledo Guiding Principles state that:-
“For example, teachers can often take advantage of holidays periods to teach about religions in culturally sensitive ways. They need to be careful to make the distinction between teaching about the holiday, and actually celebrating the holiday, or using it as an opportunity to proselytize or otherwise impose their personal beliefs.” Page 74 – Toledo Guiding Principles.
You can also opt your child out of any talk by a priest or a nun as the main aim of these talks is to evangelise your child. Many schools will not inform parents that the local priest or nun is visiting and they only find out when their child tells them or comes home with a picture of Jesus that the priest/nun gave them.
At second level there are organisations that go around schools giving out bibles and your child may come home with a bible one day despite the fact that you may have opted them out of religion classes.
Some schools have religious symbols on their school uniform. If schools require that children wear a particular uniform with a religious crest on it then you will have no choice but to send your child to school wearing a particular religious symbol.
7. Ethos / Religious integrated curriculum at Primary and Second Level
Despite the inalienable rights of parents under Article 42.1 of the Irish Constitution, the obligations of the state under Article 42.3.2, the duty of neutrality of the state and the human rights of parents and children, the state curriculum seeks to promote the moral and spiritual development of all children through religious education regardless of the fact that this breaches the conscience of some parents.
Schools are not obliged to inform parents where they integrate religion into secular subjects. It is impossible for parents to identify the elements of religious education that is integrated into the various subjects and daily life of the school. Opting out of religion that is integrated into the state curriculum is simply an impossible burden to overcome.
Section 9 (d) of the Education Act 1998 obliges all recognised schools to promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students. This becomes a huge issue as the moral and spiritual development of all children is promoted through religious education which is integrated into the state curriculum and the daily life of the school. Schools are not obliged to deliver the state curriculum in a neutral and objective manner.
Section 9 (b) of the Education Act 1998 obliges all recognised schools to follow the curriculum as prescribed by the Minister. In the Introduction to the Primary School Curriculum it states:-
“the spiritual dimension of life expresses itself in a search for truth and in the quest for a transcendent element within human experience”(page 34).
“Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and come to a knowledge of God”. (page 58)
In the debate on the Education Act 1998 the then Minister for Education stated that one could be spiritual and not religious. In reality most atheists would not even regard themselves as being spiritual. The word spiritual was not defined in the Education Act 1998 and the Constitution does not mention it in relation to education, religion and the rights of parents.
“I believe one can be spiritual without being religious. I would argue that a person could have strong spiritual values and not be a member of an organised religion or be an atheist. A person could also be religious and not spiritual. Many religious people are also very spiritual.”
Despite the above comments by the then Minister for Education (1998) the Primary School curriculum (1999) does not recognise and respect the rights of atheist/secular parents in Ireland and fails to take account that many parents do not regard themselves as spiritual. As it stands now all recognised schools in Ireland are legally required to promote the spiritual and moral development of children and bring them to a knowledge of God.
The bottom line is that all children have a human right to a neutral studying environment in school, this is in direct conflict with the educational philosophy of the Catholic Church which integrates religion into all subjects in the State curriculum and the general school day. It is impossible for any parent to opt their child out of religion that is integrated into every subject under the curriculum and in the general milieu of the school.
In support of Catholic Church policy the Education Act 1998 (Section 15 – 2 (b) sanctions the integrating of religion into all subjects under the curriculum.
In the majority of schools at second level religion is also integrated into the state curriculum. Most schools are either run directly by the Catholic Church or have a religious ethos. This includes ETB Community schools and ETB Designated Community Colleges. ETB non-Designated Community Colleges are all obliged to have Religious instruction and worship. See ETBI Legal Brief – Religious Instruction-1
In their recent Report on second level the Catholic Schools Partnership stated that:-
Catholic schools integrate Religious Education in the curriculum while providing opportunities for catechesis
In their Report Religion & Education; A Human Rights perspective, the Irish Human Rights Commission stated that:-
“The Education Act, may also be regarded as providing indirect sanction to the integrated curriculum insofar as it makes Boards of Management accountable to the patron for upholding the characteristic spirit of the school. Section 15(2)(b) of the Education Act 1998.”
As you can see the above section in the Education Act 1998 indirectly sanctions a religious integrated curriculum. This is a breach of human rights law and we are working hard to ensure that all parents and their children enjoy their human rights in the education system. As it stands now children leave their human rights at the school gate.
The Irish Human Rights Commission has recommended that the Education Act 1998 be amended to ensure that the curriculum in delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. In their Report on Religion and Education in 2011 they stated (p.104):-
“Section 15 of the Education Act should be amended to provide for modifications to the integrated curriculum to ensure that the rights of minority faith or non faith children are also recognised therein. In this regard, the State must take sufficient care that information and knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objectie, 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.”
8. Religious Education Course at Second Level
The Religious Education course at second level comes under the curriculum and is supposed to be for all religions and none and is an exam course. This course disrespects the philosophical convictions of atheist/secular religious parents under Article 42.1 of the Irish Constitution, Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 18 of the ICCPR.
One of the aims of the course is to contribute to the moral and spiritual development of students. The non-religious interpretation of life is merely acknowledged in passing, alongside materialism and fundamentalism, in a section of the course called ‘Challenges to faith’. The state curriculum at second level seeks to contribute to the moral and spiritual development of the children of atheist/secular parents through religious education. This is not a neutral and objective stance and does not constitute ‘respect’ for the rights of atheist/secular parents under human rights law.
This Religious Education course under the curriculum does not take into account beliefs and is not in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools. In this phrase “Religion and Beliefs”, the word Beliefs refers to non-religious philosophical convictions. The aim of the Religious Education course is to support a religious understanding of the world which is contrary to the Toledo Guiding Principles (p.70).
Many schools are refusing to permit students to opt out of this Religion course as they claim that it is not Religious Instruction and that it respects all religions and none. Contributing to the moral and spiritual education of the children of secular parents through religious education is clearly not in accordance with Article 42.1 of the Constitution. Can you imagine the outcry if the State was contributing to the moral and spiritual education of the children of religious parents through atheist education?
All schools at second level (including ETBs) are obliged to teach a specific religion as well as the state Religious Education course. Schools simply have not got the time to have two separate religion courses. As far as we are aware nearly all schools in Ireland combine the Religious Education course under the curriculum with the Guidelines for the faith formation and development of Catholic students. This includes all the various ETBs, Community Schools, Designated Community Colleges and non-Designated Community Colleges.
Combining the state Religious Education course with another course such as the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic students is not permitted given the judgement in the Folgero v Norway case at the European Court of Human Rights. Schools never inform parents that this is happening and they are not obliged under the Education Act 1998 to do so.
The European Court found that expecting parents to identify the areas of a religion course that did not respect their philosophical convictions was an unacceptable burden and also put parents in the position that they had to reveal their convictions. This raises issues under Article 9 of the European Convention as individuals have the right not to be obliged to reveal their religious and philosophical convictions even indirectly. Differentiated teaching would not suffice as the European Court stated that this was not consonant with parents’ right to respect for their convictions under Article II of Protocol 1 (the right to education).
You might like to read about the various types of ETB/VEC State schools, see here and here. Just because they are State schools does not mean that they are not religious schools. Educate Together have also signed an Agreement with the ETB’s to ensure that this Religious Education programme is available in their schools. There is no escape, all patron bodies at second level accept this course and this type of religious education.
Religious parents also have a right to opt their child out of this course if they decide that as a matter of conscience they do not wish to force their child to take religion.