Schools should teach children to challenge, not to respect, harmful religious codes of conduct
The religion course in Community National Schools requires children to respect the ‘codes of conduct that influence the way people live in a range of belief traditions’.
This crosses an important line between respecting the right to believe something and respecting the content of those beliefs. Indeed, it goes beyond that line by obliging children to respect harmful behaviour arising from those beliefs.
While we must respect the right of people to hold religious or nonreligious beliefs, that does not mean that we must respect ‘codes of conduct’ arising from those beliefs. Many religions and beliefs lead to ‘codes of conduct’ that should be challenged, not respected.
There are only a few Community National Schools at present, but that sector is due to expand. We must ensure that the State stops undermining the rights of parents, and the right to Freedom of Conscience, Religion and Belief, in these schools.
Freedom of Conscience is guaranteed to all people
The right to freedom of religion and belief belongs to people, not to what they believe in or their ‘codes of practice’. Freedom of Conscience, Religion and Belief is one of the foundations of democratic societies. It is guaranteed to people of all religions and beliefs. The UN has stated that:
“Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.
The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community.”
Some ‘Codes of conduct’ should be challenged, not respected
While we must respect the right of people to hold religious or nonreligious beliefs, that does not mean that we must respect ‘codes of conduct’ arising from those beliefs. Many religions and beliefs have ‘codes of conduct’ that should be challenged, not respected.
The European Court has recognised Scientology as a religion. If the right to Freedom of Conscience, Religion and Belief included the right to expect respect for how that belief is manifested through various ‘codes of conduct’, then we would be obliged to respect the ‘codes of conduct’ of Scientology and various other beliefs and religions.
Religious ‘Codes of conduct’ and the rights of women
With regard to the human rights of women, the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief has pointed out that:
“41. Of significant note is the frequency at which States’ adherence to faith-based claims affect their capacity to protect the human rights of women. The voluminous religious-based reservations entered by States parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women are one case in point.
The breadth of impositions on women’s rights justified by States in the name of religion, including those which limit their full participation in political, social and economic life, perpetuate an environment that enables harmful practices against women and prevents society from achieving gender equality.
This includes the denial of access to reproductive health services and refusals to provide adequate legal and policy safeguards against domestic violence manifested in the form of marital rape and so-called “honour crimes”.
Religious ‘Codes of conduct’ and access to schools
Discriminating on the grounds of religion by refusing five-year-olds access to their local school was, and still is in some cases, part of our education system. This religious discrimination was referred to by the state as ‘lawful oversubscription criteria’.
The main Christian religious bodies supported it, as they claimed it was needed to uphold their Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the right of parents to a religious education for their children.
This religious discrimination benefited the Catholic Church, and it still benefits the Church of Ireland, who campaigned to keep this lawful religious discrimination in place.
The ‘codes of conduct’ of the Church of Ireland obviously have no issue with discriminating against five-year-olds on the basis of religion.
Our Constitution encourages these breaches of human rights
Atheist Ireland has recently started the ‘One Oath for All’ campaign which seeks to change the religious oaths in the Irish Constitution, so that conscientious atheists and others can hold the office of President, Judge, Taoiseach, and other posts.
Despite this breach of the right to Freedom of Conscience, the main Christian religions are not campaigning to remove these Articles in the Irish Constitution.
But we also need to address Article 44 (1) of the Constitution. This says that:
‘The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold his name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.’
So the Constitution obliges the Irish State to ‘respect’ and ‘honour’ religion. That obligation is reflected and upheld throughout our education system, including by obliging children to respect harmful codes of conduct.
The Community National Schools, by obliging children to respect ‘codes of conduct’ that influence the way people live in a range of belief traditions, are undermining the right to Freedom of Conscience, Religion and Belief.
A State course in public schools is being used to undermine parental rights, including the right of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.
This breach of human rights is encouraged by Article 44 (1) of the Constitution, which obliges the State to respect and honour religion. We must ensure that this Article is amended to prevent it from giving cover to these breaches of human rights.