The right to not attend religion class, whatever it is called, in ETB schools

Atheist Ireland sent our recent Legal Opinion on the Constitutional Right to not attend religious instruction under Article 44.2.4 to the General Secretary of the ETBI Paddy Lavelle.

The ETBI responded to us on behalf of all ETBs and claimed that the ETBI distinguishes between religious instruction and religious education. They said that where no religious instruction (using their definition) is provided, the right to opt-out does not apply.

Atheist Ireland has responded to these claims as well as other issues raised in their response to us. You can find the letter from the ETBI and our response to that here.

In this article, we want to detail how the ETBs has demoted our rights under the Education Act to something they can just decide to grant and not something that we have a right to without religious discrimination.

We deal with the issue of religious instruction v religious education in our response to the ETBI  and in this article.

The letter from the ETBI is a reflection of their lack of understanding of the rights of minorities in the education system and is the reason why they are not the alternative to denominational schools, but part of the problem.

ETBI Response

The ETBI stated in their letter to us that:

“ETB schools do not provide religious instruction. The ETB sector distinguishes between ‘religious instruction’ and ‘religious education’. Religious instruction is a term used to indicate instruction in accordance with the rites, practices and teachings of a particular religion or denomination for pupils of that religious tradition. Religious education, on the other hand, is open to all pupils regardless of their commitment to any particular religion or worldview.”

“Where no religious instruction is provided, the right to opt-out does not apply”

Finally, notwithstanding all of the foregoing, it remains the ETB position that if a parent or
student over the age of 18 does not wish for the student in question to participate in any given
subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or the adult student,
that student is not required to participate in that class/subject. However, where the NCCA
Religious Education course is not recognised as the provision of religious instruction, any
possible obligation on schools to provide alternative resources or education does not arise.

The right to not attend instruction under the Education Act 1998

Leaving the Constitutional meaning of religious instruction to one side, as we have already dealt with that in a previous article, there is still a legal right not to be obliged to attend any instruction on the grounds of conscience under Section 30-2(e) of the Education Act 1998.

If any instruction is against the conscience of the parent, including religious instruction, then there still is a right for parents to ensure that their child does not attend. The response of the ETBI refers to their position regarding not participating in any given subject. It does not refer to the right under Section 30-2(e) of the Education 1998 to not attend any instruction that is against the conscience of the parent. Not participating is not the same as not attending and that section clearly states “shall not require”.

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin in 1999 when he was Minister for Education reflected the Supreme Courts understanding that Article 42 must be read in the context of Article 44.2.4 and that these rights were reflected in the Education Act 1998. He responded to a Dail question regarding; (a) a child who did not wish to participate in religious knowledge classes and (b) where a family did not wish their child to attend a religion class and (c) where the school authorities require all pupils to either study one or a variety of religion. (Written Answers –Religious Education – Dail 16th February 1999 – (3978/99) (3996/99)). This was just before Section 30-2(e) of the Education Act 1998 was enacted.

He stated that Section 30-2(e) and Section 15 of the Education Act 1998 reflected the rights guaranteed under Article 42.1 and 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution. He said that these Constitutional provisions were given a modern restatement and support in these sections of the Education Act 1998.

Article 42.1 recognises the inalienable rights of parents with regard to the religious and moral education of their children. It is not up to the State or the ETBs to decide what is or is not against the conscience of parents and to decide that they will let students not participate. It is a Constitutional and legal right.

The right to be free from religious discrimination under Section 7 of the Equal Status Act

Boards of Management of ETBs under Section 15-2 (b) of the Education Act are obliged to act in accordance with any Act of the Oireachtas.

Under the Equal Status Act, schools are entitled to their religious ethos but cannot discriminate on religious grounds. They cannot disregard their obligation under Section 7 of the Act by discriminating in relation to the access of a student to any benefit provided by the establishment or any other term or condition of participation in the establishment by a student.

In their response to us, the ETBI has informed us that the NCCA Religious Education course reflects the ETBs multi-denominational ethos. Before this, the ETBs had already defended their Christian ethos in a non designated Community College at the WRC.

The Department of Education has said that the NCCA RE course is an optional subject. No ETBs are required to teach it. It is the ETBs that have decided that it reflects their multi-denominational ethos.

The main aim of the recently updated NCCA Religious Education course is to develop 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. As you can appreciate atheists see this as disrespecting and undermining atheist perspectives through promoting theistic views, and contrary to our Constitutional rights under Article 42.1 and Article 44.2.4 and consequently our right to not attend is engaged under Section 30-2(e) of the Education Act. The NCCA Background Paper and Brief for the Review of Junior Cycle Religious Education states “As such, religious education is informative and formative.”

Atheism is not a denomination, so a multi-denominational ethos is not inclusive of atheists. We are obliged by force of circumstance to send our children to ETB schools, as they are presented as the alternative to denominational schools and there are no non-denominational second-level schools in Ireland.

In the Dail in 2018 Deputy Bruton the then Minister for Education stated that:

“In the case of multidenominational ETB schools at second level, we will ensure that religion is treated as an option and not as a compulsory subject. We are making several changes which are going to give rise to a much improved environment.”

The improved environment never happened, and from the response of the ETBI it seems that they still don’t respect our rights. The participation of minorities in ETB multi-denominational schools means that children from atheist families are obliged to sit in religion classes, as no other subject is offered notwithstanding their right under Section 30-2(e) of the Education Act 1998 to ensure that their children do not attend any instruction that is against their conscience.

The legal obligation of the ETBs to eliminate discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights under Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission Act

The obligation of the Boards of Management of ETBs under Section 15-2 (b) of the Education Act to act in accordance with any Act of the Oireachtas means that the ETBs are required to eliminate discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights (Section 42 – Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission Act). The ETBs are a public body under the IHREC Act.

If the ETBs implemented their legal obligation under Section 42 of the IHREC Act, then the right of minorities to not attend the NCCA RE course at second level or the Goodness Me Goodness You course in Community National Schools would be guaranteed and protected, as neither course meets human rights standards. Their children would be offered another curriculum subject and the ETBs would not be undermining our rights under the Education Act 1998.

On the basis of the above rights, Atheist Ireland is seeking to vindicate the right of students to not attend any type of religion class and get another curriculum subject, and we will continue to campaign against patron bodies such as the ETBs who undermine our rights.

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