New Circular Letter for religion in ETB schools? Atheist Ireland to meet Department of Education

We were shocked to read a report in the Irish Times this morning that the Department of Education may be considering a new Circular Letter to ETB schools that would force students to attend the State course in Religious Education against their conscience, contrary to Section 30.2(e) of the Education Act.

Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland, have a meeting scheduled for next Wednesday, 10th October, with the Department of Education at which we will seek to clarify what this article refers to.

If you are a parent or a student in an ETB school, please contact Atheist Ireland before next Wednesday to let us know what is happening in your local school.

The Irish Times article suggests that the Department, in this suggested new Circular Letter, may make a distinction between ‘religious instruction’ (which involves faith formation) and ‘religious education’ (which does not). The ETBs and teachers unions have also been making this argument.

The Irish Times article suggests that the Department is considering making it an automatic assumption that students are not taking classes in ‘religious instruction,’ but that students will be obliged to attend the State course in ‘religious education.’

We do not accept this interpretation of the distinction between ‘religious instruction’ and ‘religious education’. We maintain that religious instruction means the teaching of any class in religion, just as instruction generally means the teaching of any class in any other subject.

Atheist and secular parents have a Constitutional and Human Right to opt their children out of the NCCA Religious Education course on the grounds of conscience, whatever it is named. The only thing at issue here is whether our children can pick another curriculum subject when we opt them out on conscientious grounds.

To roll back on the Circular Letter issued last February by refusing to permit our children to pick another subject would be a reflection of the disrespect that church and state have historically shown for our convictions.

We will continue to support the established right of all students to opt out of any religion classes, including those put together by patron bodies or the NCCA. We will continue to support parents and students in ensuring that this right is vindicated.

Our argument on this is supported by:

  • The way that the words ‘instruction’ and ‘education’ are used in the Education Act 1998.
  • The judgment of Barrington J in the Supreme Court in the Campaign to Separate Church and State case 1998
  • The analysis in 2011 by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission of the Supreme Court judgment in the Campaign to Separate Church and State case.
  • The General Principle of the European Court regarding Article 2 of Protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Furthermore, the Department of Education assured us when we met with them as they were preparing the current Circular Letter that students would be able to opt out of classes in that involve faith formation, or the State NCCA curriculum, or a combination of both, and would in each case have the option of a different timetabled curriculum subject.

Here is our initial response to the distinction described in the Irish Times article.

Contents

1. The Opt-out in the Education Act
2. How does the Education Act use the word ‘Instruction’?
3. Deletion of clause during the passing of the Education Act
4. Supreme Court in the Campaign to Separate Church and State case
5. Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission analysis
6. Article 2 of Protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights
7. Public Body Duty under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Act
8. Summary

1. The Opt-out in the Education Act

Section 30 of the Education Act deals with the curriculum. Section 30.2 (e) says that

The Minister…. 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.

So the opt-out, on conscience grounds, uses the word ‘instruction’. But what does the Act mean by ‘instruction’? Does it means something different than the ordinary teaching of a subject on a curriculum, something that implies a religious faith formation dimension?

No, it does not. Everywhere that the Education Act uses the word ‘instruction’ it is clear that it is referring to the ordinary teaching of any subject in the curriculum. By contrast, it uses the word ‘education’ to refer to the overall provision of education generally within the school.

2. How does the Education Act use the word ‘Instruction’?

Section 22.1 says:

The Principal of a recognised school and the teachers in a recognised school… shall have responsibility… for the instruction provided to students in the school

Section 25 says:

The Minister may… prescribe:
(a) the minimum number of days in a school year during which a school shall be open to receive students and provide them with instruction
(b) the minimum number of hours of instruction in a school day or in a school week

Section 30.1 says:

The Minister may… prescribe the curriculum for recognised schools, namely:
(a) the subjects to be offered in recognised schools
(b) the syllabus of each subject,
(c) the amount of instruction time to be allotted to each subject

Section 30.2 says:

The Minister:
(d) shall ensure that the amount of instruction time to be allotted to subjects on the curriculum as determined by the Minister in each school day shall be such as to allow… for subjects relating to or arising from the characteristic spirit of the school
(e) 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.

Section 30.4 says:

A school may… provide courses of instruction in such other subjects as the board considers appropriate

Section 41.2 says:

It shall be a function of (the NCCA):
(j) to promote equality of access to education generally and to instruction in any particular subjects between male and female students

3. Deletion of clause during the passing of the Education Act

Furthermore, when the Education Act was being passed in 1998, the following clause was deleted from Section 5 of the Intermediate Education Act 1878:

provided that no examination shall be held in any subject of religious instruction, nor any payment made in respect thereof

The reason that this clause was deleted was to enable the State to lawfully introduce the NCCA course in Religious Education. This analysis is supported by a letter sent by the Department of Education to the NCCA in March 1994, which states that:

Our advice is that the provisions relating to examinations in religious instruction have not lapsed and would have to be repealed before examinations could be held in religion.

But, if that clause was a barrier to the NCCA course, then the NCCA course must be a subject of religious instruction. If there was a distinction between the two concepts, then that clause would not have been a barrier to the NCCA course.

4. Supreme Court in the Campaign to Separate Church and State case

In this case, Barrington J stated of Article 42.2 that:

Article 42.2 prescribes that the parents shall be free to provide ‘this education’ (i.e. religious, moral, intellectual, physical, and social education) in their homes or in private schools or ‘in schools recognised or established by the State.’ In other words the Constitution contemplates children receiving religious education in schools recognised or established by the State but in accordance with the wishes of their parents.

He stated of Article 44.2.4 that:

(Article 42.2 prescribes that) Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.

The Constitution therefore distinguishes between religious ‘education’ and religious ‘instruction’ — the former being the much wider term. A child who attends a school run by a religious denomination… may have a right not to attend religious instruction at that school but the Constitution cannot protect him from being influenced, to some degree, by the religious ‘ethos’ of the school.

This quote refers to ETB Community and Comprehensive schools which are being presented as the alternative to denominational schools. These schools are now claiming that they are not teaching religious instruction but religious education.

Regardless of this claim, any course under the Education Act is referred to as Instruction. In addition its purpose is moral and religious formation which is more than “influencing to some degree”.

5. Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission analysis

In 2011 the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission published a report titled Religion and Education: A Human Rights Perspective. This report stated about the above decision:

This analysis creates a distinction between “religious and moral formation” which is a broad and all encompassing concept, on the one hand, and “instruction” on the other which is a much narrower formulation. It will be recalled that it is “instruction” in a subject that forms the basis of exemptions under the Education Act, and appears to be limited to formal classes in any subject, including religion. This statement could be interpreted to endorse a form of integrated curriculum, however it arguably does not go that far, as the decision was made in the context of second-level education, whereas the integrated curriculum applies to primary school.

The ‘religious and moral formation’ that Barrington J refers to as ‘religious education’ in the general atmosphere of the school is not objective. It can influence ‘to some degree’.

A formal religious education course that seeks to contribute to the moral and spiritual development of all students through religious education is more than “influencing children” to “some degree”. It is formative, why would atheist and secular parents want the state to contribute to the moral and spiritual education of their children though religious education?

6. Article 2 of Protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights

The General Principle of the European Court regarding Article 2 of Protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that:

(h) The second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 implies on the other hand that the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. That is the limit that must not be exceeded.

But the NCCA Religious Education Course does not meet this test. For example, its aims include:

  • To foster an awareness that the human search for meaning is common to all peoples, of all ages and at all times
  • To explore how this search for meaning has found, and continues to find, expression in religion
  • To identify how understandings of God, religious traditions, and in particular the Christian tradition, have contributed to the culture in which we live, and continue to have an impact on personal life-style, inter-personal relationships and relationships between individuals and their communities and contexts
  • To appreciate the richness of religious traditions and to acknowledge the non-religious interpretation of life
  • To contribute to the spiritual and moral development of the student.

Pursuing these aims through Religious Education do not respect atheist and secular and some religious parents’ philosophical convictions, and the information or knowledge included in the curriculum is not conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

7. Public Body Duty under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Act

Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act states that:-

42. (1) A public body shall, in the performance of its functions, have regard to the need to
(a) eliminate discrimination
(b) promote equality of opportunity and treatment of its staff and the persons to whom it provides services, and
(c) protect the human rights of its members, staff and the persons to whom it provides services.

Forcing our children into a religious education course, contributing to their moral and spiritual education through religious education breaches our Constitutional and Human Rights. This NCCA course is not a course ABOUT religions and beliefs delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. It pursues an aim of indoctrination by not respecting our philosophical convictions, it is not delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. It undermines the right to freedom of religion and belief.

8. Summary

We are shocked to read in the Irish Times this morning that the Department of Education may be considering a new Circular Letter to ETB schools that would force students to attend the State course in Religious Education against their conscience, contrary to Section 30.2(e) of the Education Act.

We do not accept the interpretation of the distinction between ‘religious instruction’ (involving faith formation) and ‘religious education’ (not involving faith formation). We maintain that religious instruction means the teaching of any class in religion, just as instruction generally means the teaching of any class in any other subject.

Atheist and secular parents have a Constitutional and Human Right to opt their children out of the NCCA Religious Education course on the grounds of conscience, whatever it is named. The only thing at issue here is whether our children can pick another curriculum subject when we opt them out on conscientious grounds.

To roll back on the Circular Letter issued last February by refusing to permit our children to pick another subject would be a reflection of the disrespect that church and state have historically shown for our convictions.

We will continue to support the established right of all students to opt out of any religion classes, including those put together by patron bodies or the NCCA. We will continue to support parents and students in ensuring that this right is vindicated.

We have a meeting scheduled for next Wednesday, 10th October, with the Department of Education at which we will seek to clarify what this article refers to.

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