Catholic church says optional State religion course is a core subject
A Catholic Church spokesperson has vindicated Atheist Ireland’s analysis of the problems with the second level State Religious Education curriculum, showing both the hard and soft barriers to opting out of religious education in Irish schools.
Father Liam Power, who is spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Waterford and Lismore, told Waterford Local Radio that the second level State curriculum is an optional subject. He then said that schools with a religious ethos insist that it is a core subject, and that all students have to take it. He also claimed they don’t have to take it as an exam subject, but that they have to take it as a formation subject, which he said is the primary purpose of the curriculum.
He went on to say that parents are told clearly what are the core subjects are when they sign up to the school, and stated that parents have a right to withdraw their child from such a subject even though he had just said that all students have to take the course. He also claimed that parents knowingly enrol their children into schools with a religious ethos, whereas in reality many parents simply have no real choice.
He also said that he fully respects the right of parents to choose the type of education that they want for their children, including to have have their children brought up in ‘an atheistic culture such as Educate Together’! He is clearly unaware that Educate Together schools are not only not atheistic, and indeed not even secular, but are multi-denominational.
He also said that it is difficult or impossible to separate secular subjects from religious ethos, and that the reason was that if you are teaching about the environment in science it would be influenced by what the Pope says about it, and that if you are teaching about racism in English, well, racism is abhorrent! Bizarrely, he seems to think that the Pope’s opinions are part of science and that only religious people believe that racism is abhorrent.
If you think that Father Power sounded a bit confused about the situation, then welcome to the club. If he is confused about what is optional, a core subject, and compulsory, then can you imagine how parents feel about this situation.
Constitutional Right to opt out of Religion.
There is a right under Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution for parents to opt their children out of religion in ALL schools that accept state funding. This means that the funding of any type of school including those with religious ethos is dependent on this right to opt out. This Constitutional Right is reflected in the Education Act 1998 Section 30 – 2 (e).
The Constitution recognises that there will be minorities in schools under different Patron bodies but regardless children can still opt out of religion. Instead of putting barriers in the way of opting out of religion by making it a core subject all publicly schools should be seeking ways to ensure that parents can exercise this Constitutional Right.
Obliging children sit at the back of the religion class while they are exercising their Constitutional right to opt out is religious discrimination. No school can legitimately call itself inclusive when they are discriminating on religious grounds in this manner.
Making Religious Education a core subject in any school is religious discrimination and it is also a breach of the Equal Status Act. By making Religion a core subject, schools can by default oblige all students to take it. If parents still insist that their child opt out, some schools will relent but the child must sit at the back of the class when religion takes place.
The student is not permitted to pick another subject such as home economics or engineering. This is simply religious discrimination, the school is accepting state funding, and one of the conditions of this is that children can opt out of religion.
Soft barriers to opting out of religion
The spokesperson for the Catholic Church has vindicated Atheist Ireland’s claim that the vast majority of schools are making this second level Religious Education course compulsory. Schools tell parents that it is a core subject and that their children must take. Schools never inform parents that they can opt out of the course if they believe that it is against their conscience.
Making Religious Education a core subject is putting in place a barrier for parents who legitimately feel that the religion course is in conflict with their own philosophical or religious convictions. The reason that schools are doing this is to stem the flow of children that are opted out of religion.
ETB Schools and Colleges are making the State RE course a core subject and compulsory
The vast majority of schools at second level are making this State Religious Education course a core subject and compulsory. This is not only schools with a Catholic ethos but also ETB/VEC schools, Designated Community Colleges and non-Designated Community Colleges. There is no school choice for parents that want to opt their child out of religion at second level. All schools and colleges at second level are making it a core subject and compulsory. Contrary to what Fr Power has stated parents have no choice but to send their children to schools where religion is made a core subject and compulsory in many cases.
Atheist and secular families and religious minorities can legitimately claim that the state Religious Education Course at second level does not respect their convictions. One of the main aims of the course is to promote the moral and spiritual development of students through religious education. Another main aim is to respect religions, while the course only acknowledges the non religious interpretation of life.
Atheism is mentioned in a section of the course called ‘Challenges to faith’, alongside materialism and fundamentalism. Promoting the moral education of students from atheist and secular families through religion does not constitute respect in any language. This state RE course is not objective, critical and pluralistic and it was never meant to be.
Given the above it is not unreasonable for parents to exercise their Constitutional and Human Right to opt their children out of this course and to seek another subject. This really should not be an issue for publicly funded schools that claim to promote pluralism, inclusion and diversity. All publicly funded schools should recognise and support the diversity present in their communities and seek to ensure that the rights of all parents and their children are given practical application on the ground.
This is the full interview with Father Liam Power, along with the preceding interview with Michael Nugent