Church and State still undermine the right to not attend religious instruction in schools
Another year begins, and Church and State continue to undermine the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction in schools. This is an area where there is no separation of Church and State, and where the State instead enables the mission of the Catholic Church to evangelise.
There is a Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction in publicly funded schools in Ireland (Article 44.2.4 Irish Constitution). The Constitution clearly states ‘without attending religious instruction’.
“Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.”
The Legal Opinion that Atheist Ireland got last year states the following about this right:-
“From a constitutional perspective, it seems to me that the right encompasses, at the very least, the right to leave the classroom during religious instruction while remaining supervised or to be taught another subject. As between these two possibilities, there is a decent argument that schools should not give more teaching time to some students over others on the basis that the latter has opted out as to do so is to discriminate against the student on religious grounds.”
“Schools that provide religious instruction must also put the detailed arrangements for those not attending in their Admission Policies as per Section 62(7)(n) Education Act 1998 (paras 106-7). The provision commenced on 1st February 2020 and plainly requires schools to (i) put in place arrangements for students wishing to not attend religious instruction, (ii) to ensure that those arrangements do not result in a reduction of the school day, and (iii) that such arrangements are documented”
The vast majority of children who manage to exercise their Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction are left sitting in the class and no other subject is offered. Successive Ministers for Education have done nothing to put in place statutory guidelines to give practical application to the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction.
The reason for this is that the Catholic Church is afraid that if practical application is given to the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction, then there will be an avalanche of children seeking to exercise that right, and their evangelising mission in publicly funded schools will be curtailed. The State has always supported the Catholic Church by refusing to give practical application to the right to not attend religious instruction.
The recent Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 is a case in point. Section 62-7(n) of this Act requires schools to put in their Admission Policies the arrangements for students that decide to not attend religious instruction. Schools including the ETBs have just ignored this.
The purpose of Section 62-7(n) of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 was enhance transparency in the education system and protect the rights of families. Despite Atheist Ireland writing to the Minister Norma Foley, TDs asking parliamentary questions, and the Oireachtas Joint Education Committee asking the Minister to address questions about the matter, nothing has been done to rectify it.
Atheist Ireland will continue to lobby on this matter until the State obliges schools to vindicate the Constitutional rights of parents and children.