Back to the future? In 1999, Micheál Martin protected the right to not attend religion class
When Micheál Martin was Minister for Education twenty years ago, he supported and protected the Constitutional rights of parents and their children.
As Minister for Education in 1999, he was in no doubt about the Constitutional right of students to attend schools without attending religious instruction.
He added that his Department would inquire into any case where it is alleged that the school’s responsibilities were not being fulfilled in this matter. He said that the position in law was quite clear.
Roll on through the years, and successive Ministers for Education including the present Minister Norma Foley have rolled back on those rights.
They have absolved themselves of any responsibility in the matter, tried to redefine the right, and made decisions themselves on what is and is not against the conscience of parents.
But no Minister has explained how the legal position has changed since Micheál Martin articulated it as Minister for Education in 1999.
41% of marriages are non-religious
The CSO figures in 2019 show that 41% of marriages were non-religious. Ireland has changed and there are many families who want to send their children to school without attending religious instruction.
They also want their children to be offered another subject if they decide to not attend religion classes that are against their conscience.
Fianna Fail should look again at the rights of parents and their children in the education system.
Recognising the right to not attend religious instruction and giving it practical application is not threatening or undermining the ethos of schools. Not attending religion classes is a Constitutional condition of the funding of all schools (Article 44.2.4).
Given the inalienable rights of parents under Article 42.1 of the Constitution read in conjunction with Article 44.2.4 (the right to not attend religious instruction), this issue is not going away.
Children who exercise their right to not attend religion classes do not get the same teaching time as those that do attend. They lose out on teaching time and this discrimination cannot continue.
It is discrimination to deny children who exercise their Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction the same teaching time as those that exercise their right to attend.
The inalienable right of parents under the Constitution
It is not up to any Minister for Education, Patron bodies, schools, unions or teachers to decide what is or is not against the conscience of parents in relation to the religious and moral education of their children.
Given the inalienable rights of parents in the Constitution with regard to the religious and moral education of their children, it is difficult to understand why successive Ministers for Education have unlawfully redefined Article 44.2.4 by claiming that it only applies to the teachings of one religion.
In essence, various Ministers for Education have taken to deciding for parents what is or is not against their conscience despite the inalienable rights of parents under the Constitution.
Teaching children from non-religious families values that enable them to see the relevance of religion to their lives is indoctrination. Why are politicians supporting this curriculum course?
It is worth pointing out that Article 42.1 of the Constitution in relation to the rights of parents is a reflection of Catholic Church teaching and the influence of the Church on our Constitution. This Article has been used for years to support the rights of Catholic families in the education system notwithstanding the fact that it refers to all parents and not just Catholic parents.
Yet when parents from non-religious families invoke their inalienable right under Article 42.1, it is suddenly redefined. Politicians, the NCCA, Unions, Patron bodies, schools and teachers unilaterally decide what is and is not permitted to invoke the Constitutional right of parents in relation to the religious and moral education of their children.
None of this is ever based on any legal opinion but on the views of those that have power and control.
In 1999 the now Taoiseach, Michael Martin recognised that the rights of all parents under the constitution was absolute.
He was clear that the right to not attend religious instruction under Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution was supported by other Constitutional provisions, notably Article 42 relating to the primary role of parents as the educators of their children and their rights in respect of any violation of their conscience.
The recognition of the rights of all parents and students by Micheal Martin in 1999 is reflected in Atheist Ireland’s recent legal opinion on Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution. It is clear that the law regarding the inalienable rights of parents under Article 42.1 in conjunction with Article 44.2.4 hasn’t changed.
Micheál Martin supported the Constitutional rights of parents
In 1999 Micheál Martin was answering Dail questions regarding the right to not attend religion classes based on the teachings of one religion, religious knowledge classes, and classes that taught a variety of religions.
He recognised and supported the Constitutional right of parents to decide on these issues (Religious and moral education) under Article 42 in conjunction with Article 44.2.4. More importantly, he pledged that his Department would protect the right.
“The constitutional and legal rights of students to attend schools without attending classes in religious instruction is beyond doubt. Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution provides, among other provisions, that legislation providing for State aid for schools shall not affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.
This provision is supported by other constitutional provisions, notably Article 42 relating to the primary role of parents as the educators of their children and their rights in respect of any violation of their conscience.
These constitutional guarantees are supported by statutory provisions enacted both before and after the adoption of the Constitution. Section 7 of the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act, 1878, provides for the withholding of State funding from schools where pupils receive religious instruction which has not been sanctioned by the parents or guardians of a pupil.
This provision is given a modern restatement and support in the Education Act, 1998. Section 15 of the Act requires school management authorities to have regard to the principles and requirements of a democratic society and have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life in society.
In addition, section 30(2)(e) provides that the Minister for Education and Science, in prescribing the curriculum for schools shall not require a student to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of his or her parent or of the student where he or she is 18 or over.
Both of these provisions will come into effect in the near future when I make a commencement order in respect of the sections in which they are included, after necessary planning and consultation has been completed.
The position in law therefore is quite clear and as far as my Department is concerned so is the position in practice. The teaching of religion in schools must be conducted in a manner, which allows children, who do not wish to attend religious instruction, to avail themselves of an otherwise full education without exposure to religious instruction.
The precise arrangements to be made are a matter for the individual school and my Department will advise and, as far as practicable, assist any school which experiences any difficulties. My Department will also inquire into any case where it is alleged that the school’s responsibilities in this matter are not being fulfilled.”
Yet for some reason, in the past twenty years, Fianna Fail has undermined the position articulated by Micheál Martin regarding the Constitutional right to not attend religion classes.
Atheist Ireland hopes that Fianna Fail will return to Micheál Martin’s position, and give practical application to the rights of parents and their children under Article 42.1 and Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution.