The tangled web of events undermining the right to opt out of religion in ETB schools

In 2000 when the NCCA Religion Education course was introduced in schools, the Department of Education described it as optional. In practice, most schools made it compulsory. This was despite the fact that, of all of the subjects, religion is the only one that you have a constitutional right to not attend.

Nearly twenty years later, in 2019, the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, is refusing to vindicate the Constitutional right in Article 44.2.4 to opt out of any religion class. He is refusing to vindicate the right in the Education Act to opt out of any subject contrary to your conscience, which was put into the Education Act as a modern restatement of the Constitutional right to opt out of religion class in Article 44.2.4.

The Minister is refusing to vindicate the right that the Department gave to students in ETB schools, in a Circular Letter early last year, that if they opt out of religion, they would get another timetabled subject. Instead, he is endorsing the Department’s reversal of that directive, later last year, which came after pressure from the Catholic Church, the ETBs, religion teachers, and the Teachers Union of Ireland.

By doing this, the Minister is allowing schools to continue to make the subject of religion compulsory. He is acting as if religion was a purely secular subject, like history or geography, which do not have the same opt-out guarantees under the Constitution and the Education Act. And this is happening in ETB schools, that are State schools.

Partial Timeline of Events

The following partial timeline will help with understanding the history of religion in ETB schools and the significant Circular Letters and documents that govern the running of these schools. It will also set out the farce that is the Circular Letters and the discourse around them.

  1. Deeds of Trust, Model Agreement and Circular Letter 73/74
  2. The Situation Before 2000
  3. New NCCA Religious Education Course 2000
  4. Castletroy Community College 2015
  5. Department of Education Speech 2016
  6. First Circular Letter Feb 2018
  7. Second Circular Letter Oct 2018
  8. The Situation Today

1. Deeds of Trust, Model Agreement and Circular Letter 73/74

ETB schools are supposed to be the alternative to Denominational schools.  They are classed as Multi-denominational and open to all children in the community. In reality, they always have been and remain places of evangelisation. As in denominational schools, the rights of minorities are disregarded.

All ETB schools are legally required to have religious instruction and worship for all the students in the college, in accordance with the rites of the student’s particular religion. In reality, this has mainly been Catholic religion classes and worship.

This requirement is guaranteed under Deeds of Trust, Model Agreement and Circular Letter 73/74. ETB schools comply with this requirement. The TUI and religion teachers have never refused to implement Circular Letter 73/74 in non designated Community Colleges.

2. The Situation Before 2000

Before 2000 the vast majority of ETBs had Catholic religion classes and worship. Students could opt out but no other subject was offered. Most ETB schools made religion mandatory and a core subject. Religion teachers have to be approved by a local Bishop and in some of the schools there are Chaplains paid by the state and approved by the Catholic Church. This is all part of the Deeds of Trust, the Model Agreement and Circular Letter 73/74.

The Circular Letters issued by the Department of Education in 2018 state that students who opted out of Catholic religious instruction and worship in ETBs were given supervised study or other activities. In the majority of ETB schools that simply never happened. Most of them had a policy not to permit students to study or even do their homework if they were opted out as it was claimed that it would give them an unfair advantage.

3. New NCCA Religious Education Course 2000

In 2000 a new NCCA Religious Education course was introduced into schools. It was supposed to be for students of all religions and none. Circular Letter M19/99 issued by the Department of Education states that it is an optional subject.  At the time most ETB schools already had timetabled Catholic religious education classes. The TUI or religion teachers did not complain about the extra workload. That extra workload meant that they could have to teach approx five hours of religion per week: two and a half hours for Catholic religious instruction, and two and a half hours for the NCCA Religion course.

Of course, five hours of timetabled religion classes was not feasible, and schools and teachers decided not to offer two different religion courses. They just combined Catholic religion classes with the NCCA religion course. From the letter sent by the Catholic Bishops to Minister Bruton in 2018, it seems that the Church see Catholic religious instruction under the Deeds of Trust and the Model agreement as the same thing as the NCCA religion course. Remember they were heavily involved in its introduction. ETB schools and religion teachers never informed parents and students that they were doing this. They continued with the practice of making religion classes mandatory.

In 1999 the Catholic Bishops had introduced Guidelines for delivering Catholic faith formation to be taught alongside the NCCA religion course. The courts have found that faith formation (Article 42) is not the same thing as religious instruction (Article 44.2.4), it goes beyond it. Religious instruction is doctrine, apologetics, religious history and comparative religions and faith formation is familiarising a child not just with religious doctrine but with religious practice, developing a child’s spiritual and religious life by prayer and bible reading.

There is a Constitutional right to opt out of faith formation and religious instruction. Everyone knew that the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic students was taught alongside the NCCA Religion course but indoctrinating minorities was not an issue for any of them. At one stage Diocesan Advisors were running in-service days for the NCCA religion course, and religion teachers still attend in-service days organised by the Catholic Church. Despite the requirement of Circular Letter M19/99 that the NCCA Religion course be an optional subject it now became a core subject and mandatory in many ETB schools.

At this stage, we have ETB schools and religion teachers ignoring the Constitutional rights of families as they were integrating the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic students into the NCCA religion course and not informing parents. ETB schools and religion teachers were also ignoring the intention of Circular Letter M19/99 which stated that the NCCA Religion course was optional.

4. Castletroy Community College 2015

In November 2015, Atheist Ireland assisted a parent to highlight the refusal of an ETB Community College in Castletroy to allow their child to opt out of the NCCA Religion class. RTE’s Emma O’Kelly reported on the story, which resulted in the extraordinary situation of the school holding a board of management meeting in order to allow the family to exercise their Constitutional right to opt out of religion. Castletroy Community College was also ignoring the intention of Circular Letter M19/99 which clearly says that the NCCA course was optional.

In response to this, in documents later obtained by Atheist Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act, the CEO of Kildare and Wicklow ETB wrote to all of the Principals of schools in its area, saying that he did not believe that the current position regarding religious instruction in their schools was tenable, even in schools deemed to be ‘Designated Colleges’ under deeds of trust. This was a situation of their own making. Timetabled Catholic religion classes were not compulsory, the NCCA timetabled religion class was optional, and it was the ETBs and their teachers that were making religion compulsory or a core subject.

5. Department of Education Speech 2016

In 2016 Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education & Skills, made a speech at the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools Forum about partnership in the education system. You can read that speech here. The Department of Education was telling ETB schools that they needed to change. In other words, they needed to give practical application to the rights of parents and their children (as per Circular Letter M19/99), the Deeds of Trust, Model Agreement and Circular Letter 73/74 and also the Irish Constitution.

Sean O Foghlu stated that:

“This does not mean the schools cannot continue to serve the needs of its Catholic students, rather it means that they must consult  parents and students about such matters as religious education and worship and assess demand rather than continue to assume that all students should participate. The schools need to prepare for situations where a majority of students may wish to withdraw and where religious instruction and worship may be required by a minority, if at all.”

This was ignored by religion teachers, their Unions, and the ETBs. The TUI now complain that they were never consulted and that they need extra resources to implement the Circular Letter issued in February 2018. They had never refused to implement Circular M19/99 in 2000 which introduced a new course into schools and which made the NCCA religion course optional.  NCCA Religion classes were supposed to be optional and parents had the right to opt their children out the Catholic religion classes under the Deeds of Trust, Model Agreements and Circular Letter 74/74 and of course Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution.

From the speech by the Department of Education in 2016 to the publishing of the first Circular Letter in February 2018, ETB schools and religion teachers did nothing about implementing Circular Letter M19/99 and ensuring that the NCCA religion course was optional and not mandatory. They never complained about needing extra resources and the TUI never mentioned it at all. They never concerned themselves with the fact that the Deeds of Trust, the Model Agreement and Circular Letter 73/74 permit students to opt out of timetabled Catholic religion classes and worship. They just kept on making religion mandatory and ignoring the Constitutional and human rights of minorities.

6. First Circular Letter Feb 2018

In February 2018 the Department of Education published a Circular Letter 0013/2018 requiring schools to offer students another subject if they opted out of religion. The TUI, the Catholic Bishops, the Religion Teachers Association and the ETBI all complained about this and refused to implement it.

The TUI refused to implement the Circular on the basis that no extra resources were offered even though they never had an issue in 2000 when it was introduced as an optional subject in the curriculum (Circular M19/99). They also complained that they were never consulted. The Catholic Bishops complained because they felt that if students that opted out and got another timetabled subject they would have an unfair advantage. They suggested that students that do not take religious education should have another course in religious heritage and values and well as ethics.

The Bishops do not make any distinction between Catholic religious instruction under the Deeds of Trust, Model Agreement and the NCCA religion course, they see them as one an the same, that actually says a lot. The Mater Dei Institute now a college of DCU train religion teachers. They still have a Catholic ethos. You can access that letter  here Letter to Minister Richard Bruton 

7. Second Circular Letter Oct 2018

In October 2018 the Department of Education issued Circular Letter 0062/2018, this was a clarification of Circular Letter 0013/2018. It said that if ETB schools offered Catholic religion classes then students could opt for another subject timetabled subject.  If ETB schools just had NCCA religion classes then students would not be offered another timetabled subject.

The Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, has also said that ETB schools can make the NCCA Religion course compulsory even though it was introduced as an optional subject in 2000 (Circular Letter M19/99).

Since the second Circular Letter was issued in October 2018 the TUI has not campaigned for more resources to ensure that students can opt for another subject such as history which is now optional.  ETB schools are still required to offer an optional subject to students who opt out of timetabled Catholic religion classes even though the Catholic Bishops believe that religion classes under Deeds of Trust and Model Agreement are the same as the NCCA religion class.

This means that in ETB schools students can get an optional subject if they opt out of Catholic religion class but they can’t get an optional subject in denominational schools. Students can’t get an optional subject if they opt out of the NCCA religion class in ETB schools or denominational schools. All this and in addition the Catholic Bishops believe that Catholic religious instruction under the Deeds of Trust, the Model Agreement and the NCCA religion course are the same thing.

8. The Situation Today

In Ireland today you can force religion on children against the wishes of their parents, refuse to implement Circular Letters and absolutely nothing happens. For years, schools and religion teachers have been indoctrinating children from minorities into the Catholic faith without the permission of their parents and nothing has been done about it.

Last year the Department of Education said that parental experience conveyed to the Department suggests that in some schools there has been a practice of delivering Catholic religious instruction within class periods where the NCCA Religious Education syllabus is time-tabled (Circular Letter 0062/2018).

We are asked to accept that it has taken the Department of Education 19 years to realise that schools and religion teachers were delivering Catholic faith formation within class periods for the NCCA Religious Education syllabus and not telling parents about this. This practice is still going on in denominational schools, and they have still done nothing about that.

In 2018 the Catholic Bishops sent a letter to the then Minister, Richard Bruton. It is clear from that letter that they see Catholic religious instruction in ETB schools as the NCCA religion course, with a right to opt out which they say they respect. The letter from the Bishops to Minister Bruton can be found here Letter to Minister Richard Bruton

Local Catholic Bishops sanction the hiring of Chaplains in various Community schools and designated Community Colleges. It is clear from the Campaign to Separate Church and State case in 1998 that the purpose of paying for Chaplains in these schools is to help Catholic parents with the religious and moral formation of their children.

ETB schools will still have Catholic religious worship, even though parents will not have sought timetabled Catholic religion classes.  We have already seen this happen. Some ETB schools only have the NCCA Religion course, but still have Catholic religious worship.

This is what Sean O’Foghlu from the Department of Education said in his speech in 2016:

Furthermore the religious education or worship to be provided is not determined by the wishes of a patron but the obligation in the Deed to provide for the religious needs of those who actually attend the school. A comparable set of obligations applies in designated ETB community colleges.

Conclusion

When you look at this partial timeline of what has taken place in relation to religion in ETB schools, it is clear the rights of parents and children have taken second place to the interests of the Catholic Bishops and Teachers and their Union. Throughout the years, those with privilege and influence have put their interests before the Constitutional and human rights of minorities.

They are still doing it, and successive Ministers have just caved in to this pressure. You won’t see Catholic Chaplains in ETB schools losing their jobs if students don’t sign up for Catholic religious instruction and worship.

It is an absolute farce. ETB schools are now using the Circular Letter issued by the Department of Education in October 2018 to force students into the NCCA religion class. The Catholic Bishops believe that the NCCA religion course is the same thing as Catholic religious instruction referred to in the Deeds of Trust and the Model Agreement. We actually agree with them on this, but the Department of Education and the Minister claim that it is something different.

The end result of the lobbying of the Bishops, and the resolution by the TUI at their Conference in 2018, is that ETB schools and religion teachers are again making religion mandatory, and they have got much more confident about doing that.

In 2000 the NCCA religion course was intended to be optional. Now 20 years later in 2019 schools can make it mandatory with the sanction of the Minister for Education. Things have got worse for minorities and the reason for that lies squarely with the Minister, the Catholic Bishops, the TUI, the ETBs and religion teachers.

We will continue to campaign for our Constitutional right to not attend religion, and to pick another subject.

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