Atheist Ireland second letter to Ombudsman for Children about religious discrimination in schools

Letter to Ombudsman for Children about religious discrimination in schools

Atheist Ireland has sent the following letter to the Ombudsman for Children, about the advice that she has given to the Minister for Education on religious discrimination in admission to primary schools.

Our first letter to her on this issue is here.

Dear Ms Logan,

Thank you for your letter dated 9th January 2014. We appreciate that you have taken the time to reply to us but unfortunately your letter does not clarify your position. Your response has caused us great concern and we cannot help but feel that your Recommendation on the proposed Bill will do nothing to ensure that our rights and the rights of our children are recognised and protected. Indeed, we believe that it will be seen as supporting the Government’s failure to recognise and protect the human rights of secular parents and their children, as highlighted by the UN Human Rights Committee, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism.

The European Convention obliges the State to respect the right of parents to ensure that the education and teaching of their children is “in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” (Article 2 of Protocol 1). The European Court of Human Rights has stated that the secular viewpoint is worthy of respect in a democratic society, and must be regarded as a “philosophical conviction” within the meaning of the Convention. This right to respect is an absolute right, not to be balanced against the rights of others or one that can be gradually achieved. This right is binding upon the State in the exercise of “each and every” function that it undertakes in the sphere of education and teaching and that includes admissions policies.

The UN Human Rights Committee has raised particular concern regarding the human rights of secular parents and their children. We are the people in Irish society that suffer religious discrimination and the abuse of our human rights in the Irish education system. It is of great concern to us that the bodies that should be trying to engage those rights do not seem to be making the same Recommendations to ensure that they are realised. We have searched for Recommendations from both the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority and can find nothing that supports any derogation for publicly funded National schools with a religious ethos.

You have stated that the focus of the advice to the Minister was on the specific question of the primary and secondary legislation that will govern the enrolment process for schools. We did mention in our previous letter that the UN does not separate the issues in relation to schools but neither did the Government. These broader issues that you refer to in your response to us came up under the Amendment of Section 33 of the Education Act 1998. They are bound up in enrolment legislation and they are also bound up in the Constitution. The opportunity was there to give advice and make Recommendations but you just did not take it up.

The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism has Recommended that:-

“The Curriculum Guidelines
The Advisory Group recommends that the introduction to the Primary Curriculum should be revised to ensure that, while the general curriculum remains integrated, provision is made for denominational religious education/faith formation to be taught as a discrete subject. The Advisory Group recommends that, as a first step and in line with the general view expressed at the Forum, Rule 68 should be deleted as soon as possible.”

The Irish Human Rights Commission, in their Report, Religion & Education: A Human Rights Perspective, May 2011, raised this issue and Recommended that:-

“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 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 Forum Recommendation to delete Rule 68, the Recommendation from the Irish Human Rights Commission and the concern of the UN Human Rights Committee regarding the integrated curriculum, never found their way into the Draft General Scheme of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013, notwithstanding the fact that it does deal with these issues.

It is also worth noting that recent leaflet issued by the Dept of Education and the National Parents Council to parents regarding inclusiveness in schools left out the issue of the religious integrated curriculum despite it being raised by the UN Human Rights Committee, The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism and the Irish Human Rights Commission.

We have written to the Minister for Education but he has not replied and it does seem that again our human rights will be ignored. Here is a link to the letter we sent to the Minister.

We appreciate that your office does not seek to duplicate work done by other bodies such as the Irish Human Rights Commission and we are not asking that you do so. The Irish Human Rights Commission has made Recommendations in this whole area which included all the related issues and so did the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. What your Recommendation will do is to still give privilege to some religious parents and their children in a specific area while discriminating against secular parents and their children and other religious minorities.

Article 42.3.1 of the Irish Constitution states that:

“ the State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.”

Secular parents are dispersed throughout the country as well as religious minorities and for some of us our nearest school is a minority religious school. A recent article by Kitty Holland in the Irish Times highlighted this issue as her nearest local publicly funded National school was the Church of Ireland school.

In the recent case of O’Keeffe v Ireland at the European Court the court stated the following:-

“151. Finally, the Government appeared to suggest that the State was released from its Convention obligations since the applicant chose to go to Dunderrow National School. However, the Court considers that the applicant had no “realistic and acceptable alternative” other than attendance, along with the vast majority of children of primary school-going age, at her local National School (Campbell and Cosans v. the United Kingdom, 25 February 1982, § 8, Series A no. 48). Primary education was obligatory (sections 4 and 17 of the School Attendance Act 1926), few parents had the resources to use the two other schooling options (home schooling or travelling to attend the rare fee-paying primary schools) whereas National Schools were free and the National School network was extensive. There were four National Schools in the applicant’s parish and no information was submitted as to the distance to the nearest fee-paying school. In any event, the State cannot be released from its positive obligation to protect simply because a child selects one of the State-approved education options, whether a National School, a fee-paying school or, indeed, home schooling (Costello-Roberts, cited above, § 27).”

One of the key sentences above is “In any event, the State cannot be released from its positive obligation to protect” and it is also worth noting that the Court mentioned “no information was submitted as to the distance to the nearest fee-paying school”.

Your Recommendation does not take into account the burden created for some parents who will still lose out because certain religious parents will be still be given preferential access to a local school. What you are saying is that some parents must suffer this burden so that other parents can access a religious education for their children. That is still religious discrimination and we simply cannot understand how it is proportionate and especially when those that lose out will still have no choice but to access another school further away which will most probably have a religious ethos as well. Again we must point out that the State has a positive obligation to respect secular parents and their children in the education system. It is an absolute right, not to be balanced against the rights of others or one that can be gradually achieved.

Secular parents are coerced by force of circumstance to send their children to schools in violation of their conscience and lawful preference. We simply do not believe that children should be discriminated against in access to their local school because of the religious or philosophical convictions of their parents. We are hardly likely to reach a position in this country where there is choice of school in every area.

You state that one of the reasons for your Recommendation was that a failure to include any such derogation could render the legislation vulnerable to constitutional challenge. You did not refer to the fact that the State by ‘providing for’ the education of minorities in schools with a religious ethos also raises Constitutional issues under Article 42.3.1 and Article 42.1 never mind the human rights issues. The Constitution Review Group Report has raised these issues and the UN is clearly raising concern that the religious integrated curriculum (ethos) in schools is a breach of the human rights of secular parents and their children.

As you can appreciate we are very concerned that despite all the work done by the Irish Human Rights Commission in this area and the concern of the UN, it does seem that the state intends to do nothing to protect the human rights of secular parents and their children. We believe that the approach outlined in your letter will lend support to this religious discrimination and undermine attempts to change it.

We would appreciate meeting you to discuss this issue.

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