Schools cannot oblige students to attend Syllabus Religious Education at second level
Syllabus Religious Education at second level is not an objective course about religions and beliefs, and parents have a Constitutional right to ensure that their children do not attend this class. You can find information, and a sample letter for Catholic and ETB schools and colleges, on our website Teach, Don’t Preach.
Schools typically inform parents that this course is ‘religious education’ not ‘religious instruction’, and that it is suitable for all religions and none. But there is absolutely no legal basis to this claim.
The courts have found that it is parents who are the primary educators of their children, and parents’ authority in relation to the religious and moral education and formation of their children is a foundational pillar of the Constitution.
Syllabus Religious Education reflects the disrespect that the State has for non-religious parents and their children. It also reflects the control and influence the Catholic Church has in our education system.
It is not an Education about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, but one that pursues an aim of indoctrination.
Issues with the Syllabus religious Education course
We outline the issues with the content of the Junior Certificate Religion course below.
In the Background Paper and Brief for the Review of Junior Cycle Religious Education it states that:
“On the other hand, the syllabus moved beyond a phenomenological approach to religious
education (which presents religions as an objective phenomenon to be examined or observed by students from a safe distance, without engagement or commitment).”
It states about the phenomenological approach to religious education:-
“The phenomenological approach to religious education emerged in the late 20th century in non-confessional contexts in the UK. It emphasises a so-called objective, descriptive and non-evaluative study of observable expressions of a religion.”
It is not an objective course about religions and beliefs and this is clearly recognised by the NCCA. It goes beyond the non confessional approach. It puts students in a position that they must reveal their convictions, and undermines the non religious interpretation of life.
In addition to the content of the course, schools with a religious ethos such as Catholic schools and many ETB schools and colleges deliver the course according to Catholic church faith formation guidelines. The Background paper states that:
“Within faith-based schools, Guidelines were developed to enable teachers to teach for religion and so continue to engage in faith formation, alongside teaching the State syllabus. See for example, Irish Bishops Conference, Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students: Junior Certificate Religious Education Syllabus (Dublin, Veritas, 1999)”
Catholic faith formation is integrated into the course, and the Department of Education is well aware that this is happening and will do nothing about it. The course was designed to facilitiate the indoctrination of minorities into a catholic understanding of the world.
This is not an objective course about religion. Non religious parents can legitimately consider that this course is not objective, critical and pluralistic and creates a conflict of allegiance for their children between the school and their own values.
Parents’ Constitutional and Human Rights
Under the Irish Constitution (Article 42) parents are the primary educators of their children. The Supreme Court has said that Article 42 must be read in the context of Article 44.2.4, the right to not attend religious instruction.
In the recent Burke case at the Supreme Court it states that:-
“An overall saver in the constitutional text is that the State, in providing for free primary education and in endeavouring to assist post-primary education in various forms, have “due regard … for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.” This provision reflects a concern for upholding parental authority; a foundational pillar of the Constitution that accords with Article 41 recognising the family as “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of” Irish society. Hence, society is built around the family.”
Justice Barrington in the Supreme Court in 1998 stated that Article 42 must be read in the context of Article 44.2.4.
“But the matter does not end there. Article 42 of the Constitution acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of the parents of provide for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children. Article 42 S.2 prescribes that the parents shall be free to provide “this education” (i.e religious moral intellectual physical and social education) in their homes or in private schools or “in schools recognized or established by the State”. In other words the Constitution contemplates children receiving religious education in schools recognized or established by the State but in accordance with the wishes of the parents.(page 25)
It is in this context that one must read Article 44 S.2s.s.4 which prescribes that:
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 Constitution gives parents the right to ensure that their children do not attend any type of course in religious teaching. It is not up to any Minister for Education, the NCCA, Patron bodies, teachers and schools to decide for parents what is or is not suitable religious education for their children. To do so is to undermine a foundational pillar of the Constitution.
The UN Human Rights Committee in their General Comment on Article 18 – the right to Freedom of conscience, religion and belief state that:
“6. The Committee is of the view that article 18.4 permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way. The liberty of parents or legal guardians to ensure that their children receive a religious and moral education in conformity with their own convictions, set forth in article 18.4, is related to the guarantees of the freedom to teach a religion or belief stated in article 18.1. The Committee notes that public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with article 18.4 unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians.”
Non religious parents and religious minorities have a Constitutional and Human Right to ensure that their children do not attend religious instruction.
Background to the Syllabus Religious Education course
- The NCCA Religious Education Development Group
- The Title of the Course
- The Aim of the Course
- The Rationale of the Course
- The Learning Outcomes of the Course
1. The NCCA Religious Education Development Group
The NCCA’s Religious Education Development Group was composed of representatives of mostly religious patron bodies, teachers unions, and the Department of Education.
These include the Council for Catechetics of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Church of Ireland Board of Education, Methodist Board of Education, Joint Managerial Body of voluntary schools (mostly Catholic), ETBI (whose schools have a religious influence), Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, Religion Teachers’ Association of Ireland, Department of Education, State Examinations Commission, TUI and ASTI.
The Group was chaired by Fr. Gareth Byrne, former Director and Head of Religious Education at the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education at DCU. He is also a member of the National Faith Development Team of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, of the Episcopal Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development, of the Episcopal Council for Catechetics and of the National Training Authority for the Dublin Diocesan Board of Formation in Ministry.
2. The title of the Course
The problems begin with the title of the course. By describing the course as a ‘Religious Education’ course, the content is not framed in an inclusive way in accordance with human rights principles.
The State curriculum should teach about religions and beliefs, in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, and any course that claims to be inclusive should be called ‘Education about Religions and Beliefs” or perhaps ‘Education about Religions, Beliefs, and Ethics’.
The NCCA has already tried to develop such a course for primary level, but it was blocked by the Catholic Bishops who are patrons of most Irish schools. The Catholic Church believes that you cannot teach objectively about religion, and the Catholic Bishops have told the NCCA that a pluralist approach to teaching religion goes against the philosophical basis of Catholic religious education.
3. The Aim of syllabus Religious Education
The aim of the new Religious Education course is to:
“develop knowledge, understanding, skills, 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. It aims to develop the students’ ability to examine questions of meaning, purpose and relationships, to help students understand, respect and appreciate people’s expression of beliefs, and to facilitate dialogue and reflection on the diversity of beliefs and values that inform responsible decision-making and ways of living.”
Can you imagine the reaction if any State curriculum had, as the first sentence of its aim, to “enable young people to come to an understanding of atheism and it’s relevance to life, relationships, society and the wider world”?
If such an aim was ever proposed, the Department of Education would instinctively understand that this would be indoctrination, and would not respect the right of religious parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.
We would be hearing comments from various religious bodies and organisations about the totalitarian State undermining the rights of religious parents and their children. They would ask why is the State telling children that atheism is more relevant than religion to life, relationships, society and the wider world?
But when it comes to respecting the right of non-religious parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions, the State has a blind spot. That blind spot is a reflection of Catholic Church teaching on the rights of parents and the right to freedom of religion and belief.
4. The Rationale of the Course
The Rationale of the course treats religious beliefs differently to non-religious beliefs. It states that:
“Religious Education has a critical role to play in the curriculum in providing opportunities for them to consider the variety of religious beliefs found in Ireland and elsewhere, become aware of different understandings of the Divine, and examine other interpretations of life.”
This treats religious and nonreligious beliefs differently in two ways.
Firstly, the course seeks to enable students to become aware of different understandings of “the Divine,” but it doesn’t seek to enable students to become aware of different understandings of atheism, or secularism, or any non-religious philosophical conviction.
The Divine is defined as the various ways in which the world’s five major religions refer to God/gods/the Transcendent. The major religions are defined as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.
Secondly, the course wants students to “consider” religious beliefs while “examining” other interpretations of life. It defines “considering” as reflecting upon the significance of something, and “examining” as enquiring into or looking closely at something. Whichever of these criteria they use, surely they should apply the same criteria to both religious and nonreligious beliefs?
The Rationale also states that the course:
“encourages respect and understanding of different beliefs, perspectives and ways of living, including both the religious and non-religious response to human experience.”
This conflates two different things: students should respect other people’s right to hold different beliefs, but they should not be encouraged to respect the beliefs themselves. Crossing that line breaches the human right to freedom of religion and belief.
5. The Learning Outcomes of the Course
The new course has 31 learning outcomes, which apply to all students. Learning outcomes are statements that describe what knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and values students should be able to demonstrate having studied Religious Education.
One example of a learning outcome is:
- 2.4 research and present the understanding of the Divine found in two major world religions drawing upon their origins in sacred texts and/or other sources of authority.
Of the 31 learning outcomes in the course:
- 18 are related solely to religious world views.
- 12 are related to a combination of religious and non-religious world views.
- Only 1 is related solely to non-religious world views.
The only learning outcome that is related solely to non-religious worldviews comes immediately after a similar learning outcome about religious worldviews:
- 1.6 examine and appreciate how people give expression to religious belief in religious rituals, in
formal places of worship and other sacred spaces
- 1.7 discuss the significance of non-religious rituals/celebrations for people’s lives.
You will notice that students have to “examine and appreciate” the religious learning outcome, while they only have to “discuss the significance” of the non-religious one.
Looking at the 12 learning outcomes that are related to a combination of religious and non-religious world views, the following example is phrased in a balanced way:
- 2.2 consider responses from one major world religion and from a non-religious world view to some big questions about the meaning of life.
It would have been so simple to phrase all of the learning outcomes in this way, so that each learning outcome would cover both religious and non-religious world views. Instead, nearly 60% of the learning outcomes are related solely to religious worldviews, preventing the course from being objective and inclusive.