How Minister Bruton’s new proposals would intensify breaches of absolute human rights

The Minister for Education Richard Bruton has outlined four options in relation to an Admissions School Policy. None of the Options that he outlined comply with Ireland’s Human Rights obligations, and Option 4 would undermine those rights further.

Children have a human right to access to their local school without religious discrimination, and to access a neutral studying environment without religious influence. None of the four options outlined will give parents and their children these basic human rights.

One of the General Principles of the European Court in the relation to the rights of parents in the education system is that the ‘right to respect’ for parents convictions is an absolute right, and not to be balanced against the rights of others or one that can be gradually achieved. The purpose of publicly funded National Schools with a Catholic ethos is to evangelise. That is their mission.

Evangelising children from minorities while they are accessing education does not constitute respect for their parents’ convictions. The Minister is balancing the desire of some parents to a religious education against the rights of minorities, and claiming that he is aiming for the greatest good for the greatest number. What is happening is that he is aiming to fulfil the desire of the greatest number of parents at the cost of the rights of minorities.

Atheist Ireland, along with our colleagues in Evangelical Alliance Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland, will engage with the Minister’s consultation process to voice our opposition. We are hoping that the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission and the Ombudsman for Children can also help campaign against these Options.

We will also be writing to the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, who we recently met to discuss religious discrimination in Irish schools. He said that he had never seen anything like the Irish school system, and said that the schools were holding the state hostage.

Minister Bruton is undermining the rights of minorities

Minister Bruton expresses concern for the rights of religious minorities, but what he means by this is the rights of institutional bodies of certain religious minorities to run schools, and the desires of some religious minority parents. He elevates these institutional interests and personal desires ahead of the Constitutional and human rights of freedom of conscience, religion and belief of actual individual members of religious and non religious minorities.

The tone and language of the Minister’s speech clearly shows that the Minister intends to continue to support an education system that undermines the rights of minorities.  This is not a step forward, but a step to further entrench the disrespect the State has for the rights of atheist, secular and religious minority parents and their children.

The Minister wants us all to accept that he is doing something positive, when he is putting forward options for discussion that would make the situation worse for atheists and members of minority religions.

Human rights breaches are more than ‘a disadvantage’

The Minister stated that:

“Parents are recognised by our Constitution as the primary educators of their children. I believe that a desire on behalf of religious parents to educate their children in their faith is welcome and should be respected. This principle is reflected in the Programme for Government. Equally, however, I believe that non-religious parents or parents of minority religions should not be unfairly disadvantaged in seeking to admit their children to their local publicly-funded school.”

So the Minister has said that the desire of religious parents should not disadvantage minorities. But religious discrimination in access and the evangelising of minorities is not just a disadvantage. It breaches the Constitutional and Human Rights of parents and their children, and undermines religious freedom and the rights of parents.

Despite ten Recommendations from the United Nations and Council of Europe the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, is saying that minorities are at a disadvantage to the desire of religious parents. Is the Minister serious? Does he really believe that religious discrimination, and the evangelising of minorities in the education system is just a disadvantage?

Does the Constitutional and Human Rights of minorities not register with the Minister?  Given that he knows about these ten Recommendations to secure the rights of minorities in the education system, how could Minister Bruton even put these plans forward as Options?

Not only has he ignored the UN and Council of Europe with these Options, but he has also ignored the Recommendations of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Ombudsman for Children, both of which are statutory bodies.

The Minister’s Option Four breaches human rights

Let us look at the Minister’s Option Four, and the comments of the Minister in relation to it. Option 4 is that the religious discrimination in access to schools would be removed, but that parents would be required to sign a document that they supported the ethos of the school.

To even suggest that minorities should sign a document saying that they will support the ethos of a particular school shows how the Minister and his Department do not respect the Constitutional and human rights of minorities. It seems to us that the Minister does not even accept that we have any rights, but he elevates the desire of some parents to a particular type of education over the rights of other parents.

Why on earth would minorities sign a document that supports the evangelising of their children?  The vast majority of publicly funded National schools evangelise minorities. Minorities cannot opt out of the evangelising mission of the Catholic Church. This mission is reflected in all subjects under the curriculum and the daily life of the school.

This includes Relationship and Sexuality education. The State through the Primary School Curriculum permits Patron bodies to reflect their teaching into relationship and sexuality education. The state has failed in its positive duty to protect the inalienable rights of minority parents.

The conscience implications of Option Four for minorities

If Minister Bruton had chosen to meet with representatives of atheist and religious minority belief groups who are the actual victims of these human rights breaches, we would have informed him that we are not just disadvantaged as he claims, but that our Constitutional and Human Rights are totally disregarded.

We would have told him that we object to religious discrimination on conscientious grounds, as we believe that it undermines the dignity of the human person. We would also have told him that we object on conscientious grounds to our children being evangelised in Catholic schools, and that we have the same rights as Catholic families.

Here is some of what the Minister’s Option Four would mean for minorities.

(a) In order to gain access to the education system for their children, atheist, secular and minority belief parents would have to sign a document that they support the mission of the Catholic Church to evangelise their children into a religious way of life.

(b) LGBT parents and their children w have to sign a document that they support the mission of the Catholic Church. That mission saw the Catholic Church campaign against marriage equality and campaign against the right of LGBT parents to have and adopt children.

(c) While the Minister and the Department of Education express concern about religious minorities, they fail to consider the religious minorities within religious minorities.  Ahmadi Muslims and Evangelicals Christians, as well as other religious minorities, are discriminated against in access to minority Religious schools. Are they now expected to sign a Document to say that they will support the ethos of a minority religion just to ensure that their children receive an education?

(d) Parents who have suffered physical and sexual abuse from members of the Catholic Church will be expected to sign a document that they will support the ethos of the Church in order to get an education for their children.

Option 4 – From the speech of the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton

Here is the controversial Option Four from Minister Bruton’s speech. It uses a bold heading of ‘Simple Prohibition’ to mislead people into thinking that that is what it is. In fact he is simply swapping one mechanism for enforcing school ethos with another.

Simple prohibition

The final option is simply to prohibit all publicly-funded schools from giving any preference to children based on religion, with no limitations for geography or anything else. Schools would remain open to seek to ensure that pupils or their parents do not disagree with the ethos of the school, for example by requiring parents or students to sign a declaration that they support or respect the ethos of the school

This means that schools would only use other admissions criteria – for example proximity, lottery. No local child will be disadvantaged under this model. It avoids the need to impose boundaries or a nearest school rule.

As with the other approaches, this option also throw up disadvantages.

It would severely impact on the capacity of minority religious groups to run schools to cater for people of their ethos, and I believe we need to hear the views of those groups on these issues. Given the make-up of the population, if a Protestant or an Islamic primary school for example was prohibited from using religion as an admissions criteria, it is hard to see how it could maintain an ethos among its school community and remain a school of that religion in any real sense.

Also, while I know there are various different opinions on this issue, there is a question mark over the constitutionality of this measure, given the constitutional right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs, a right which has been upheld by the Supreme Court to include the right to run schools. Right across the country, communities of religious people feel strong ties to their local school almost as well as their local church, have been involved in those institutions over many years, and may feel that a change like this lessens those ties.

Help Atheist Ireland to campaign against this development

Please consider joining Atheist Ireland to help us to campaign for a human rights based education system that respects equally the rights of all parents, children, and teachers. You can find details here.

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