IHRC Discussion Paper Part 1 – Introduction & Background

This is an extract from a discussion paper written by the Irish Human Rights Commission about religious education and human rights. Atheist Ireland is preparing a response to this discussion paper, and we welcome your feedback on it.

Introduction

1. Ireland’s demographics have changed significantly in the past 15 years. According to the most recent statistics, while the majority of persons define themselves as belonging to the main Christian Churches (namely Roman Catholic or Church of Ireland), a significant number of persons also now define themselves as being of no belief or of being of Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or other belief.

2. This discussion paper explores the place of religion in primary and postprimary schools in the State. It gives an overview of existing law and practice in the area and sets out both the Constitutional and international human rights standards on these points. It concludes with posing a number of questions as to whether the law and practice in the State in relation to the provision of education fully meets human rights standards.

Background

3. There are currently 3,295 primary schools (of which 3,165 are national schools and 130 special schools) in Ireland, 97% of which have Roman Catholic or Church of Ireland ethos. This means that the Patron of such schools is often a Roman Catholic Bishop and there is Church representation on the Boards of Management of each school. Although all non private primary schools in the State are referred to as national schools, they are in the vast majority of cases owned and run by the Roman Catholic Church.3

4. The State has traditionally provided funding for national schools, and prescribed a certain minimum curriculum to be followed. The State, in the form of the Department of Education and Skills (“the Department”), takes no direct role in the management of such schools which are largely self governing. This de facto situation was only properly legislated for in 1998.

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