Compulsory Religion even in ETB schools – Atheist Ireland writes to all ETBs

Back to school this week and, for many students, back to compulsory religion classes in Education & Training Boards (ETB) Schools and Colleges. Atheist Ireland has this month written about this to all sixteen ETBs, including the CEO and all the County Councillors on the various Boards. We also ask parents to contact your local Councillor, that is on the Board of the ETB in your area, and ask them to put in place policy and guidelines to ensure that children can opt out of religion and pick another subject.

ETBs are supposed to be the alternative at second level to schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church. They claim they are inclusive. What the ETBs won’t tell you is that they are obliged to have Religious Instruction and worship. This includes non-designated Community Colleges, and many of them are making this compulsory. If parents do manage to opt their child out of religion, no other subject is offered and they are made sit at the back of the religion class.

There is a complete lack of policy in ETB schools and colleges regarding religious instruction and worship. It seems that the ETBs are trying to keep the fact that they are obliged to have religious instruction and worship a secret. They claim that they are inclusive, but they don’t let students pick another subject if they exercise their constitutional right to opt out of religion. Sitting at the back of the class in an ETB schools or college is just the same as sitting in the back of the class in a school with a Catholic ethos. Neither are inclusive.

Community schools are obliged to have religious instruction and worship under the Deeds of Trust, Designated Community Colleges under the Model Agreement and non-Designated Community Colleges under Circular 73 of 74 and circular-1979, see ETBI Legal Brief – Religious Instruction-1

In addition to policy on religious instruction and worship, the ETBs need to ensure that parents are aware of the make up of the Boards of Management in the various types of ETBs. It is impossible to find out the exact number and name of Designated Community Colleges throughout the country. As far as we are aware there are over forty of them, and there are representative from the Catholic Church on the Boards of these colleges. The ETB is the full patron, but they are in essence religious colleges and operate in the same manner as Catholic second level schools.

Atheist Ireland has this month written to all sixteen ETBs. We contacted the CEO and all the County Councillors on the various Boards. You can read our letter below. We will be publishing any responses we receive, so that parents are aware what is happening in their local ETB schools and colleges. This information should be part of an overall policy in relation to religion in all the ETB schools and Colleges.

We also ask parents to contact their local Councillor that is on the Board of the ETB in your area, and ask them to put in place policy and guidelines to ensure that children can opt out of religion and pick another subject. You can check the members of the Boards of the ETB in your area here. This will also inform you of their contact details and the political party they belong to.

Letter From Atheist Ireland to CEO and County Councillors of all sixteen ETBs

We are contacting you with regard to opting out of Religion classes and also the option to choose another subject in ETB schools and Colleges in your area. We appreciate your efforts in clarifying the situation in this Legal Memo dated November 2015 (attached), but think that more is needed as the problem facing minorities has not gone away. There is no clear policy with regard to the teaching of Religion in the various ETBs, this includes Community schools, Designated Community Colleges and non-Designated Community Colleges.

In every case of which we are aware all ETB schools and Colleges combine Catholic Religious Instruction with the State Religious Education course and make it compulsory. They inform parents that it is suitable for all religions and none and that they cannot opt out. If parents query this and insist on their rights the school then permits the students to opt out but their child must sit at the back of the class. Students are not permitted to choose another subject.

An example of this was Castletroy Community College and the refusal of the school to permit the student to opt out of religion. The school had a Board of Management meeting in order to decide whether or not the student could opt out of religion. The Board decided to permit the student to access their Constitutional and human rights to opt out but the student had to sit at the back of the class during Religion classes. The school did not permit the student to access another subject.

I’m sure that you will agree that this situation cannot continue as the Constitutional and Human Rights of parents and their children are being disregarded. Given the obligations of the ETBs under Section 41 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, we hope that the ETBs can put in place Policy and Guidelines that ensure parents can opt their children out of religion and choose another subject.

Religious Instruction and Worship

It is clear from the ETB Legal Memo that all ETB schools and Colleges are obliged under various Agreements and Circular letters to have religious instruction and worship. As far as we are aware it is nearly always Catholic Religious Instruction and worship that takes place. Even non-Designated Community Colleges are obliged to have Religious Instruction and worship, Circular Letter 73/74. Circular Letter 79 obliges non designated Community Colleges to hire Religion Teachers from the Mater Dei Institute. This Religious Instruction is to take place for two and a half hours per week.

State Religious Education Course under the Curriculum

In all cases that we are aware all ETB schools and colleges inform parents that the Religious Education that takes place in the school is as per the state syllabus. They also inform parents that it is compulsory and for all religions and none. If parents query this they are then informed that they can opt their child out but that he/she must sit at the back of the class. Parents are then informed that Religion is a core subject and that no other subject can be chosen instead of it.

Religion is not always offered as an exam subject at Junior and Leaving Certificate but regardless parents are informed that it is still compulsory.

We would like to point out here that the State Religious Education syllabus is not up to human rights standards and disrespects the religious and philosophical convictions of atheists, secularists and religious minorities. We do accept that this is out of the control of the ETBs but would appreciate if you would take this fact on board.

One of the main aims of the course is to promote the moral and spiritual development of all students through religious education. The course promotes respect for all religions but only acknowledges the non religious interpretation of life. Atheist and Humanists are referred to in a section called ‘Challenges to Faith’ alongside materialism and fundamentalism. I’m sure that you can appreciate that we would have a completely different world view and that it is unreasonable to claim that this is suitable for all religions and none.

We accessed documents under FOI in relation to the course. For an in-depth analysis of the state RE course and why it is viewed in this manner please see here.

Schools and colleges are required to teach the State Religious Education course for two and a half hours per week.

ETBs combining the State Religious Education Course with Catholic Religious Instruction

We do not know of any ETB School or College that has five hours of Religion classes per week. Two and a half for Religious Instruction and two and a half for the State Religious Education Course. Schools and Colleges are combining Catholic Religious Instruction with the state Religious Education Course and making it compulsory. Parents are never informed that this is happening, schools and colleges do not have any Religious Education policies that clearly state the Legal basis for the teaching religion in the school.

ETB Inclusive schools and colleges

I’m sure that you will agree that any school that makes religion compulsory and/or require students to sit at the back of the class if they opt out, cannot reasonably be referred to as inclusive. Inclusive schools recognise the rights of parents and their children. They have policies that reflect Constitutional and human rights obligations. They would also recognise the diversity that is now in every community and would ensure that students can choose another subject instead of religion.

Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014

The Legal Memo from the ETB failed to refer to the obligations of ETBs under Section 42 (1) of the above Act. As ‘organs of the state’, ETBs are now required to comply with the obligations of the state under human rights law. ETBs are required by the Act to ‘eliminate discrimination’ and protect the human rights of those to whom it provides services. ETBs are also required to set out in a manner accessible to the public in their strategic plan an assessment of the human rights and equality issues that are relevant to the functions and purposes of the body.

Conclusion

We would appreciate if you could let us know how you intend to protect the human rights of all students and their parents in your schools and colleges.

Policy and clear Guidelines in relation to religion and opting out should be introduced as a matter of urgency.

In promoting diversity and inclusion ETBs should ensure that all their schools and colleges permit students to choose another subject if they opt out of religion.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    steve white September 04, 2016

    where are the memo’s and circular referred to?

    Reply

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