Time to rebalance Constitutional rights to protect religious minorities in Irish schools

In Ireland children have a Constitutional Right to not attend any religious teaching or activities. The Constitution obliges the State to respect the inalienable right of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions. The Constitution also guarantees that all citizens are equal before the law. Even the courts have said that the Constitutional right of parents in our education system go beyond those guaranteed under human rights law. State funding for schools is conditional on these rights.

That all sounds great except for the fact that those rights are given no practical application in our education system, in other words they are a theoretical illusion and not operable in practice. In addition Article 42.1 only applies to married parents which further undermines these rights. We need a re-balancing of  Constitutional Rights to give them practical application on the ground to ensure that the rights of all are guaranteed and protected in the education system.

Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to not attend any religious teaching in publicly funded schools even uses the word ‘prejudicially’. Despite the use of the word ‘prejudicially’, minorities leave their Constitutional and Human Rights at the school gate.

The State does not legally oblige schools to supervise students who exercise their Constitutional Right to not attend any religious teaching or worship; they provide no other subject and some schools still discriminate on religious grounds in access. On top of this schools can integrate a religious ethos throughout the daily life of the school and into the state curriculum. Schools are not legally obliged to inform parents exactly where this religious influence is integrated into the state curriculum. Children from minority backgrounds regularly attend religious services as no supervision is available. They do this regardless of the fact that the State is obliged to respect the inalienable right of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions. Article 42.1 is confined to the family based on marriage. You can read more about that in the Report of the Constitutional Review Group 1995 (page 327)

Many schools make parents responsible for the supervision of their children if they opt them out of religion. Many other schools supervise children in the religion class. However, the lack of a legal obligation to supervise children or provide another subject for them is discrimination. It immediately puts the family in the position whereby they must seek the school policy on students that opt-out, they are put in the position whereby their children feel different because they exercised their Constitutional right to not attend religious teaching and they are left doing nothing. Students cannot opt-out of the religious education that is integrated into the daily life of the school. This happens despite the Constitutional guarantee that all citizens are equal before the law. Schools regularly interrogate families if they exercise their right to not attend religious teaching or activities. GDPR Regulations are ignored as schools think they have the right to promote the spiritual education of all children through religion even if the family has no religion.

Parents who seek secular education for their children and Religious minorities are second class citizens in an education system that has managed to ignore their Constitutional and Human Rights. For minorities, this is what a democratic Republic means on the ground: religious discrimination, disregard for parental rights and the indoctrination of our children. Justice Costello in the High Court case, Campaign to Separate Church and State v Minister for Education stated that the rights of parents under the Constitution were stronger than those under human rights law. Minorities in Ireland leave their Constitutional and Human Rights at the school gate and it is well past time that we had a re-balancing of rights in Ireland.

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