New Junior Cycle Religious Education course still breaches constitutional and human rights

The new specification for the Junior Cycle Religious Education curriculum, due to be introduced in schools in September 2019, disrespects the rights of parents who seek secular education for their children based on human rights.

The new course reflects the disrespect that the State has for non-religious parents and their children. It is not an Education about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, but one that pursues an aim of indoctrination.

Parents who seek secular education for their children could legitimately consider that this course is liable to create a conflict of allegiance for their children between the school and their own values, as was found by the European Court in the case of Mansur Yalcin & Others v Turkey in 2015.

It is important to note that this is not a curriculum for the private religious patrons of schools. This new course is part of the State curriculum, devised by the NCCA, and is supposed to be for all students regardless of the school they are in.

Contents 

  1. The NCCA Religious Education Development Group
  2. The Title of the Course
  3. The Aim of the Course
  4. The Rationale of the Course
  5. The Learning Outcomes of the Course
  6. The Course must be in Conformity with Parents’ Convictions
  7. The Course Disrespects the Rights of Parents
  8. Human Rights Protect People, Not their Beliefs
  9. The Rights of Non-Religious Parents in Irish Schools
  10. The Right to Opt out of Religious Teaching
  11. Students who Opt Out should be given a Different Subject
  12. Conclusion

1. The NCCA Religious Education Development Group

The NCCA’s Religious Education Development Group is composed of representatives of mostly religious patron bodies, teachers unions, and the Department of Education.

These include the Council for Catechetics of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Church of Ireland Board of Education, Methodist Board of Education, Joint Managerial Body of voluntary schools (mostly Catholic), ETBI (whose schools have a religious influence), Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, Religion Teachers’ Association of Ireland, Department of Education, State Examinations Commission, TUI and ASTI.

The Group is chaired by Fr. Gareth Byrne, the Director and Head of Religious Education at the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education at DCU. He is also a member of the National Faith Development Team of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, of the Episcopal Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development, of the Episcopal Council for Catechetics and of the National Training Authority for the Dublin Diocesan Board of Formation in Ministry.

2. The title of the Course

The problems begin with the title of the course. By describing the course as a ‘Religious Education’ course, the content is not framed in an inclusive way in accordance with human rights principles.

The State curriculum should teach about religions and beliefs, in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, and this course should be renamed ‘Education about Religions and Beliefs” or perhaps ‘Education about Religions, Beliefs, and Ethics’.

The NCCA has already tried to develop such a course for primary level, but it was blocked by the Catholic Bishops who are patrons of most Irish schools. The Catholic Church believes that you cannot teach objectively about religion, and the Catholic Bishops have told the NCCA that a pluralist approach to teaching religion goes against the philosophical basis of Catholic religious education.

3. The Aim of the Course

The aim of the new Religious Education course is to:

“develop knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and values to enable young people to come to an understanding of religion and its relevance to life, relationships, society and the wider world. It aims to develop the students’ ability to examine questions of meaning, purpose and relationships, to help students understand, respect and appreciate people’s expression of beliefs, and to facilitate dialogue and reflection on the diversity of beliefs and values that inform responsible decision-making and ways of living.”

Can you imagine the reaction if any State curriculum had, as the first sentence of its aim, to “enable young people to come to an understanding of atheism and it’s relevance to life, relationships, society and the wider world”?

If such an aim was ever proposed, the Minister for Education Joe McHugh would instinctively understand that this would be indoctrination, and would not respect the right of religious parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

We would be hearing comments from various religious bodies and organisations about the totalitarian State undermining the rights of religious parents and their children. They would ask why is the State telling children that atheism is more relevant than religion to life, relationships, society and the wider world?

But when it comes to respecting the right of non-religious parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions, the State has a blind spot. That blind spot is a reflection of Catholic church teaching on the rights of parents and the right to freedom of religion and belief.

4. The Rationale of the Course

The Rationale of the course treats religious beliefs differently to non-religious beliefs. It states that:

“Religious Education has a critical role to play in the curriculum in providing opportunities for them to consider the variety of religious beliefs found in Ireland and elsewhere, become aware of different understandings of the Divine, and examine other interpretations of life.”

This treats religious and nonreligious beliefs differently in two ways.

Firstly, the course seeks to enable students to become aware of different understandings of “the Divine,” but it doesn’t seek to enable students to become aware of different understandings of atheism, or secularism, or any non-religious philosophical conviction.

This reference to “the Divine” is a late addition to the course specifications. It wasn’t in the draft specification published in June of last year. It has been added in since. It defines “the Divine” as the various ways in which the world’s five major religions refer to God/gods/the Transcendent. The major religions are defined as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

Secondly, the course wants students to “consider” religious beliefs while “examining” other interpretations of life. It defines “considering” as reflecting upon the significance of something, and “examining” as enquiring into or looking closely at something. Whichever of these criteria they use, surely they should apply the same criteria to both religious and nonreligious beliefs?

The Rationale also states that the course:

“encourages respect and understanding of different beliefs, perspectives and ways of living, including both the religious and non-religious response to human experience.”

This conflates two different things: students should respect other people’s right to hold different beliefs, but they should not be encouraged to respect the beliefs themselves. Crossing that line breaches the human right to freedom of religion and belief.

We describe later in this article the reasons why this breaches human rights, as described by the former UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heiner Bielefeld.

5. The Learning Outcomes of the Course

The new course has 31 learning outcomes, which apply to all students. Learning outcomes are statements that describe what knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and values students should be able to demonstrate having studied Religious Education.

One example of a learning outcome is:

  • 2.4 research and present the understanding of the Divine found in two major world religions drawing upon their origins in sacred texts and/or other sources of authority.

Of the 31 learning outcomes in the course:

  • 18 are related solely to religious world views.
  • 12 are related to a combination of religious and non-religious world views.
  • Only 1 is related solely to non-religious world views.

The only learning outcome that is related solely to non-religious worldviews comes immediately after a similar learning outcome about religious worldviews:

  • 1.6 examine and appreciate how people give expression to religious belief in religious rituals, in
    formal places of worship and other sacred spaces
  • 1.7 discuss the significance of non-religious rituals/celebrations for people’s lives.

You will notice that students have to “examine and appreciate” the religious learning outcome, while they only have to “discuss the significance” of the non-religious one.

Looking at the 12 learning outcomes that are related to a combination of religious and non-religious world views, the following example is phrased in a balanced way:

  • 2.2 consider responses from one major world religion and from a non-religious world view to some big questions about the meaning of life.

It would have been so simple to phrase all of the learning outcomes in this way, so that each learning outcome would cover both religious and non-religious world views. Instead, nearly 60% of the learning outcomes are related solely to religious worldviews, preventing the course from being objective and inclusive.

6. The Course must be in Conformity with Parents’ Convictions

The Constitution obliges the State to respect the right of parents to ensure that their children’s education is in conformity with their convictions. That right is not confined to religious parents. Human Rights law also obliges the State to respect the rights of all parents in the education system, be they religious or philosophical.

The state must take sufficient care that the curriculum is objective, critical and pluralistic in order to achieve pluralism. The right to respect is an absolute right and not to be balanced against the rights of others. The United Nations uses the terms, neutral and objective.

The UN General Comment on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief states that:

“6. The Committee is of the view that article 18.4 permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way. The liberty of parents or legal guardians to ensure that their children receive a religious and moral education in conformity with their own convictions, set forth in article 18.4, is related to the guarantees of the freedom to teach a religion or belief stated in article 18.1. The Committee notes that public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with article 18.4 unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians.”

The new Religious Education course is not confined to the general history of religions and ethics given in a neutral and objective way.

7. The Course Disrespects the Rights of Parents

Parents who seek secular education for their children could legitimately consider that this course is liable to create a conflict of allegiance for their children between the school and their own values, as was found by the European Court in the case of Mansur Yalcin & Others v Turkey in 2015.

In Ireland, parents who want a secular education have taken to the streets in the past few years campaigning against various Constitutional bans, legislation and policy that are based on Catholic Church teaching and their understanding of how ‘the Divine’ dictates they should live their lives.

These parents believe that there should be a complete separation of Church and State and that those very Constitutional issues, laws, and policy, that are based on various religious understandings of the world, undermine the dignity of the human person.

These parents teach their children to challenge those beliefs, and not to tolerate laws and policies that reflect religious beliefs that undermine the dignity of the human person.

Now the State is seeking to enable their children to come to an understanding of religion and its relevance to life, relationships, society and the wider world, and to respect beliefs when their parents are campaigning against and challenging those very beliefs on conscientious grounds.

8. Human Rights Protect People, Not their Beliefs

The Human Right to Freedom of Religion protects people, not their beliefs. The reason for this is that many beliefs undermine human dignity and the rights of others. The former UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heiner Bielefeld has stated that:

“Rights holders are human beings who may exercise these freedoms as individuals and in community with others. While this may sound like a truism in the context of human rights in general, the right to freedom of religion or belief has sometimes been misperceived as protecting religions or belief systems in themselves.

This misperception is the source of much confusion, as it obfuscates the nature of freedom of religion or belief as an empowering right. Ignoring that may lead to the wrong assumption of an antagonism between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression.

Thus, it may warrant highlighting that freedom of religion or belief protects believers rather than religions or beliefs.”

“the amalgamation of freedom of religion or belief with political projects of ‘interreligious harmony’ may marginalize the human rights of dissenters, critics or other people who might disturb a superficial harmony; and the specific features of non-discrimination can get lost out of sight when mixed with vague concepts of general humanitarian values”

9. The Rights of Non-Religious Parents in Irish Schools

The UN and Council of Europe have raised concern about the rights of non-religious parents and their children in the Irish education system.

That concern is because the State absolves itself of its responsibility to educate, and delegates that to mostly private religious bodies who have disregarded (with the help of discriminatory laws and policies) the rights of non-religious parents and their children.

The State is now seeking to enable children from non-religious families to respect the ‘beliefs’ that their parents object to on conscientious grounds, and to develop values that enable young people to come to an understanding of religion and its relevance to life, relationships, society and the wider world.

That is an ideological position that is not based on the right to freedom of religion and belief or the right to education.

Why has the State not even considered that the Religious Education course in question is liable to create a conflict of allegiance for children (whose parents seek secular education for them), between their school and the values of their family?  

10. The Right to Opt out of Religious Teaching

Some advocates of religious influence in schools are trying to create an artificial distinction between “Religious Instruction” which they say involves faith formation, and “Religious Education” which they say is more neutral.

They suggest that if a course is called “Religious Education” then schools can make the course compulsory, not inform students of the right to opt out, and not offer a different subject to students who exercise their right to opt out.

But there is no legal distinction between the concepts of “Religious Instruction” and “Religious Education.”

There is a right under the Constitution (Article 44.2.4) to opt out of “teagasc creidimh” which translates to teaching of religion, not to faith formation. The Irish version of the Constitution takes precedence over the English translation.

That Constitutional right is reflected in the Education Act 1998, (s.30-2(e)). The Education Act 1998 refers to the teaching of all the various subjects under the curriculum as ‘instruction’.

The right to opt out of Religious Teaching is given no practical application in Irish schools. The reason for this is that the state supports religions in their mission to evangelise.

Any subject that aims to develop knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and values to enable young people to come to an understanding of religion and its relevance to life, relationships, society and the wider world is religious teaching.

Trying to redefine the right to opt out is an attempt to undermine the Constitutional rights of parents under Article 42.1 and Article 44.2.4 as well as their human rights. Just because the Religious Education course at second level is an exam subject, does not mean it is not Religious Teaching where the right to opt out applies.

11. Students who Opt Out should be given a Different Subject

In their Circular Letter (0062/2018 – clarification in respect of Section 5 of Circular 0013/2018 in relation to the NCCA Religious Education syllabus and religious instruction) the Department of Education state that it is “no longer necessary” for schools to consult parents or offer their children another subject with regard to the Religious Education Course.

The European Parliament – Directorate-General for Internal Policies – Policy Department has made a Recommendation in their Report on Religious practice and observance in the EU member states (2013), they stated that:

12.The ECtHR principle of non-indoctrination in the organization of public religious education appears to be a suitable tool to make compatible state religious traditions with the rights of pupils and parents. However, to assure state religious neutrality and the freedom of religion of non-believers, much attention should be paid to the opt-out systems in those EU states with compulsory religious education. Opt-in systems too call for close supervision in states with strong religious settings. The efficacy of both systems requires schools to avoid exerting any direct or indirect pressure on pupils, to inform them of the possibilities they have, and to protect them from peer pressure. At the same time, public schools should do more to provide for objective, critical and pluralistic religious instruction.”

Not allowing students to pick another subject if they opt out of Religious Instruction is coercion. Its purpose is to put pressure on all students to take the religion class.

12. Conclusion

The Irish State does not provide objective, critical, and pluralistic religious instruction. It pursues an aim of indoctrination, by not respecting the right of parents to ensure that their children’s education is in conformity with their convictions. It disregards its duty to remain neutral with regard to religions and beliefs.

Providing another subject for students whose parents seek an opt out for them on the grounds of conscience would have fulfilled the human rights obligations of the State, and ensured respect for the rights of those parents who seek secular education based on human rights.

Atheist Ireland will continue to campaign for this to happen.

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