Any religious teaching is an optional subject, regardless of what schools might say
In Irish schools, religious teaching is an optional subject. It doesn’t matter whether it is the NCCA Religious Education course or a Patron’s Programme such as Catholic Religious Education. They are both optional subjects. It doesn’t matter if the school says that it is compulsory or a core subject. It is still an optional subject.
The reason that religious teaching is an optional subject is because of the rights of parents in the Irish Constitution, and in the Education Act. Both of these override anything that a school might claim about religion being compulsory.
However, despite this, it seems that schools do what they like, especially when it comes to disrespecting the rights of minorities. In practice, teachers, schools, and patron bodies have brought about a situation whereby religious teaching is treated as a core subject in the majority of schools.
If students do manage to opt out, then no other subject is offered. Teachers, schools, Patron bodies and the Teachers Union of Ireland complain that the Department of Education gives no extra resources to offer another subject to students who exercise their Constitutional right to not attend an optional subject.
No obligation on schools to teach religion
The Department of Education does not oblige schools to teach religion. If schools teach religion, then it is the schools and the Patron body that have decided to teach it. They have made that decision themselves, not any Minister for Education or the Department of Education. If your school is an ETB school, then it is the school and the ETB that have made that decision.
If Religion is treated as a compulsory subject in your school, whether it is the Patron’s Programme or the NCCA Religious Education course, then the school has decided to make it compulsory. This breaches your Constitutional rights, the Education Act 1998 and Human Rights law.
If Religion is a core subject in your school, whether it is the Patron’s Programme or the NCCA Religious Education course, then the school had decided to make it a core subject. A core subject means that all students are expected to take the course, and if you do opt out, then no other subject is offered.
For example, recently the Minister of Education has made history a core subject. The Minister issued a Circular Letter informing all schools that history was now a core subject. Schools are obliged to now make history a core subject.
Circular Letter informing schools that Religion is optional
No Minister of Education has ever made religious teaching a core subject. The Department of Education has never issued a Circular Letter telling schools that religion is to be made a core subject or compulsory.
In fact, the Department of Education has done the opposite in relation to the NCCA Religious Education course. When the subject was introduced the Department of Education issued Circular Letter M19/1999 stating that the NCCA Religious Education course was optional. That Circular Letter is still in place, (see copy below).
The syllabus, which is optional, will be introduced on a phased basis, beginning with about 50 schools in September 2000 (First Year Pupils).
Circular Letter obliging schools to consult parents in ETB schools regarding religion
In 2018 the Department of Education issued Circular Letter 0013/2018 obliging schools to consult parents in ETB schools and colleges in relation to what type of religious teaching they wanted.
Requirement to Consult Parents/pupils
In future instead of waiting for a parent to request a withdrawal and then having to make alternative arrangements for the pupil for the class periods concerned a school must establish the wishes of parents in relation to opting out of religious worship or instruction and where the pupil is over 18 establish the pupil’s wishes.
Ascertaining parental/pupil choice in relation to religious instruction should be integrated with the school’s processes for establishing subject choices generally.
ETB schools and colleges just ignored the Circular and, as far as we are aware, they did not consult parents. The Department of Education issued a clarification to Circular Letter 0013/2018, but the obligation to consult with parents still stands.
The wishes and rights of parents and students are of no interest to teachers and schools, as they continue to do everything they can to ensure that families do not have any choice with regard to religious teaching.
We have not heard of any school complaining that they have not got the resources to teach history (now a core subject). We still have schools complaining that they have not got the resources to provide another subject to an optional subject (Religious teaching) that the schools themselves have made a core subject.
When it comes to protecting the rights of minorities, teachers and schools act as if they are obliged to teach religion to all students regardless of the wishes of the student or their parents. They have used ‘lack of resources’ as an excuse to deny students another subject, if they do manage to opt out of optional religious teaching.
This behaviour is called religious discrimination, and it reflects the disrespect that teachers and schools have for the rights of parents and their children. The Irish State just sits back and takes no positive action to protect the rights of parents and their children. Atheist Ireland will continue to lobby to highlight and end this religious discrimination in Irish schools.
Circular Letter M19/1999
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