New government to continue to undermine the opt out from religion in schools

The Minister for Education & Skills Richard Bruton today said that the government has approved a new Education (Admissions to schools) Bill. This new government will not be removing religious discrimination in access to schools, but access is not even the main problem. There is no point in getting access to a school that discriminates against you once you get in.

This proposed Bill shows that this Government will continue to undermine the right to opt out of religion in schools once you get in, and in doing so the Government is ignoring the recommendations of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the statutory body that advises the Government on these issues.

Religious instruction versus any subject

According to the press release from the Minister today the proposed Bill will:-

“Require all schools to publish their admissions policies, which will include details of the provisions for pupils who decline to participate in religious instruction”

But the Opt out in the Education Act 1998 does not only refer to religious instruction. It states that parents can opt their children out of any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent.

If the Education (Admissions to schools) Bill confines the opt out to religious instruction, instead of any subject contrary to the conscience of parents, it has the potential to undermine the right to opt out and make things more difficult for minorities who are forced to send their children to schools with a religious ethos.

Many parents from minorities believe that the religious ethos of the school breaches their Constitutional right to ensure that the education of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

Section 30 – (2) (e) of the Education Act 1998 states that:-

“shall not require any student to attend instruction in any subject which 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.”

The clause in the Education Act 1998 does not refer in particular to religious instruction. An example is that many parents find that they can opt out of the religious instruction class but they cannot opt their children out of prayers, attendance at religious ceremonies and hymns etc.

Religious ethos of school integrated into various subjects

In addition, the ethos of schools is integrated into various subjects and the daily life of the school, and this is not part of the religious instruction class. Up to this, many parents have insisted that their children should not be forced to recite prayers and go to mass. Parents have used Section 30 – 2 (e) of the Education Act 1998 to challenge the compulsory nature of the religious integrated curriculum.

At second level many schools have made the state Religious Education Course, an exam subject at Junior and Leaving Certificate compulsory. This course is not objective, critical and pluralistic. Atheist Ireland will be publishing shortly information received under the FOI Act on how this course undermines the Constitutional and Human Rights of atheist and secular families and religious minorities.

Religious instruction versus religious education

When parents try to opt their children out of this State religion course, schools tell them that it is not religious instruction but religious education, suitable for all religions and none and compulsory. This new Bill can only enable schools to force children to take this course against the wishes of their parents.

We are also concerned that schools could use this new Bill to force children to take the proposed new course at Primary level on Education about Religions, Beliefs and ethics. Atheist Ireland has major concerns about this course because it will be subject to the ethos of the school, that means that it will not be objective, critical and pluralistic.

Recommendations of the IHREC

If this new government was committed to protecting the rights of minorities in the education system it would have ensured that the Recommendations of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission were reflected in the new Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission have made the following Recommendations regarding opting out of religion in schools.

In their Report on Religion & Education; A Human Rights Perspective they 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.”

They IHREC stated that:-

“The key phrase here is the requirement on the State to take “sufficient care that information and knowledge included in the curriculum be conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner for the purposes of Article 2 of Protocol No 1. The meaning of the term “objective, critical and pluralistic” is repeated throughout the Court’s case law. As stated, its purpose is to enable pupils to develop a critical mind with regard to religion in a calm atmosphere which is free of any misplaced proselytism.”(para 256, p 83)

The IHREC recommended in their submission on the previous Education (Admissions) to Schools Bill 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.”

Protecting the human and constitutional rights of all

This new government has taken no care to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected.  As we can see from the above Recommendations, the IHREC see the need to amend the Education Act 1998 and the proposed Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, in order that the Constitutional and Human Rights of all parents and their children are guaranteed and protected.

If this new government wants to ensure fairness, equality, pluralism and diversity the way forward is clear. The Recommendations from IHREC are not unconstitutional and would ensure that the Constitutional and Human Rights of all parents and their children are respected.

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