Constitutional Review Group concluded separate secular and religious instruction is not unreasonable or unfair

Atheist Ireland has consistently argued in our lobbying for secular education that religion should not be integrated throughout the primary school curriculum. The Government claims that it is constitutionally obliged to buttress discrimination arising from the tenets of specific religions. But as long as twenty years ago, the Constitution Review Group of 1995 concluded that requiring separate secular and religious instruction in state-funded schools is not unreasonable or unfair.

In order to make that happen, the Minister for Education must go beyond removing Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, which supports the religious integrated curriculum. She must reverse that rule, by also amending the Education Act 1998 to ensure that the state curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner that avoids indoctrination and ensures that the religious and philosophical convictions of all parents and their children are respected.

Constitutional Review Group Report 1995

The Report of the Constitution Review Group was published in July 1996, comprising within its 700 pages the most thorough analysis of the Constitution from the legal, political science, administrative, social and economic perspectives ever made.

The CRG had fifteen members selected from different backgrounds — administration, economics, education, law, political science and sociology — with lawyers being predominant:

Dr T K Whitaker, chairman
David Byrne SC
Dr Alpha Connelly
Mary Finlay SC
Dermot Gleeson SC
James Hamilton BL
Mahon Hayes
Gerard Hogan FTCD, BL
Professor Áine Hyland
Dr Finola Kennedy
Professor Michael Laver FTCD
Dr Kathleen Lynch
Diarmaid McGuinness BL
Dr Dermot Nally
Dr Blathna Ruane BL

The CRG stated that:-

“Article 44.2.4° may be thought to represent something of an exception to the general rule contained in Article 44.2.3° that the State shall not endow any religion. Accordingly, if a school under the control of a religious denomination accepts State funding, it must be prepared to accept that this aid is not given unconditionally. Requirements that the school must be prepared in principle to accept pupils from denominations other than its own and to have separate secular and religious instruction are not unreasonable or unfair.

If Article 44.2.4° did not provide these safeguards, the State might well be in breach of its international obligations, inasmuch as it might mean that a significant number of children of minority religions (or those with no religion) might be coerced by force of circumstances to attend a school which did not cater for their particular religious views or their conscientious objections. If this were to occur, it would also mean that the State would be in breach of its obligations under Article 42.3.1°”

“In summary, therefore, the present reality of the denominational character of the school system does not accord with Article 44.2.4°. The situation is clearly unsatisfactory. Either Article 44.2.4 should be changed or the school system must change to accommodate the requirements of Article 44.2.4.”

Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

In their Report, Religion and Education; A Human Rights Perspective, the Irish Human Rights Commission also pointed out 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.”

The Irish Human Rights and Equality commission have recommended that the state curriculum be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. This would fulfill Ireland’s human rights obligations and ensure that the obligation of the Minister under Article 42 of the Constitution to respect the convictions of all parents was upheld.

They Recommended that:-

“Section 15 of the Education Act 1998 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 recognized 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 manager with the aim of enabling pupils to develop a critical mind with regard to religion in a calm atmosphere which is free from any misplaced proselytism.”

“The Minister for Education and Skills should codify and review the Rules for National Schools, to ensure that the Human Rights standards set out in this paper are upheld.”

In their observations on the Education (Admissions) to Schools Bill 2015, IHREC again raised this issue. They Recommended that:-

“The Commission recommends that the new section 62(6) to be inserted into the Education Act should be amended to the effect that, in setting out the characteristic spirit and general objectives of the school, outside the specific context of faith formation and religious instruction which parents wish to avail of and where exemptions apply, regard shall be had to providing information in relation to religion in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner that avoids indoctrination.

The Commission recommends that the 2015 Bill presents an important opportunity to set down some minimum standards in relation to the nature of exemptions for students who do not want to attend religious instruction.

The Commission recommends that the new section 62(6)
to be inserted into the Education Act should be amended to the effect that in setting out the characteristic spirit and general objectives of the school regard shall be had to the values of an inclusive school that respects and accommodates diversity across all nine grounds in the equality legislation.”

Amending the Education Act 1998 to ensure that the state curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner would avoid indoctrination and help to ensure that the religious and philosophical convictions of all parents and their children are respected.

The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism

In their Report the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism Recommended that:-

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 Forum also stated that:-

“The Advisory Group recommends that the Minister for Education and Skills should review and update the Rules for National Schools.
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.
In order to clarify the constitutional and legal rights of children and parents and to reflect changes to the Rules for National Schools, the Advisory Group recommends that the Minister for Education and Skills should make schools aware of the human rights requirements of national and international law.”

The Minister has ignored this Recommendation. If she made schools aware of their human rights requirements, she would have to legally oblige them to convey the state curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. It is clear that a school that respects the human rights of all families is not one that integrates religion into all subjects and the daily life of the school. Religious education that is not conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner undermines the rights of parents and their children under the Constitution and Human Rights law.

In the follow up to the Forum Report (Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector – Progress to Date and Future Directions), the then Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn stated that:-

“The paper does not set out to be prescriptive and recognises that each school has its own ethos and operates in a particular context. Therefore, it encourages schools to consider their own practices critically and to consult meaningfully with their own communities and stakeholders in formulating policies and developing practice in this area. It also envisages that such policies and practices would evolve and develop as the school and the environment in which it operates continue to change and develop.”

It is clear that this government have no intention of following the recommendation of the Forum to confine religion to a specific class, and to ensure that there is separate secular and religious instruction. This government thinks that it is sufficient to encourage schools to protect the Constitutional and Human Rights of all parents and their children, but not require them to do so.

This Recommendation cannot be achieved without amending the Education Act 1998 to ensure that the curriculum is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. All Schools in Ireland are obliged under Section 15 of the Education Act 1998 to uphold the ethos of the patron. The ethos of schools under the patronage of the Catholic church is to integrate religion into the all subjects and the daily life of the school.

Primary School Curriculum

Even if Rule 68 is repealed, all schools will still be legally obliged to implement the Primary School Curriculum, which obliges them to bring all children to a knowledge of god.

Section 9 (d) of the Education Act 1998 obliges all recognised schools to promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students. 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.

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 that:-

“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)

The removal of Rule 68, if implemented as a standalone measure, is a symbolic gesture and no real change will happen on the ground. Atheist Ireland has consistently argued that changes must be made at the same time in the four areas of the Schools Equality PACT – Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching – in order to reform the education system in a way that respects everybody equally regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.

As the vast majority of National schools are under the patronage of the Catholic Church they can and will continue to combine secular and religious instruction in schools as that is part of their ethos. Despite the removal of Rule 68 all schools will still be obliged to uphold the ethos of the Patron (Section 15 2 (b) Education Act 1998).

The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan will continue to ignore all Recommendations from IHREC, CRG and the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. The Minister like her predecessor Ruairi Quinn are not committed to protecting the Constitutional and Human Rights of atheist/secular families. According to the Constitutional Review Group the requirement to have separate secular and religious instruction is not unreasonable or unfair. It seems that being reasonable and fair is just a step too far for this government.

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