Freedom of conscience in the Irish education system.

In 2008 the United Nations human rights committee raised concern regarding the right to freedom of conscience of secular parents and their children in publicly funded Irish National schools.

The majority of National schools in Ireland operate a religious integrated curriculum. It is impossible for secular parents to opt their children out of religion that is integrated into all subjects under the curriculum and the daily life of the school. The UN raised concern in relation to four specific human rights under the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. These human rights are:-

Article 18 – The right to freedom of conscience.

Article 2   – The right to be free from discrimination

Article 24 – The rights of the child

Article 26   – The right to equality before the law.

The UN stated the following:-

“22. The Committee notes with concern that the vast majority of Ireland’s primary schools are privately run denominational schools that have adopted a religious integrated curriculum thus depriving many parents and children who so wish to have access to secular primary education. (arts. 2, 18, 24, 26).

The State party should increase its efforts to ensure that non-denominational primary education is widely available in all regions of the State party, in view of the increasingly diverse and multi-ethnic composition of the population of the State party.”

Ireland has ratified this Covenant and consequently has an obligation to ensure that these human rights are guaranteed to all parents and children regardless of their religious or secular convictions. Opening up non-denominational schools in all regions of the state is not going to happen any time soon. The Catholic Church handing over a few schools to another patron is not going to change the fact that throughout the country many secular parents will have no option but to send their children to publicly funded National schools that operate a religious integrated curriculum. In the Report from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism these schools are referred to as ‘stand alone schools’.

One of the Recommendations in the Report from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism is that as a first step Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools should be removed. Despite this Recommendation and the concerns of the UN human rights committee Rule 68 has not been removed. If it was the right to freedom of conscience of Catholic parents and their children that was at issue we would not hear the end of it. The right to freedom of conscience of secular parents and children are given no consideration as the Irish state does not even recognise that secularists have a conscience.

Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools states the following:-

“Of all parts of a school curriculum, Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.”

The European Court of Human Rights has made clear that the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the “level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” required for them to be considered “convictions” within the meaning of Articles 9 (freedom of conscience) of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1 (the right to education) More precisely, their views must be regarded as “philosophical convictions”, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, given that they are worthy of “respect ‘in a democratic society’”, are not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental right of the child to education.

The UN human rights committee and the European court recognise that the secular viewpoint is worthy of respect in a democratic society. The UN is putting pressure on the state to protect the human rights of secular parents in the Irish education system.

There simply is no reason not to remove Rule 68 immediately given that this is a human rights issue. Unfortunately this government intends to ignore the concerns of the UN and continue to disrespect secular parents and their children and deny them their human rights.

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