FOI document shows Catholic bishops reversed Department of Education’s support for parents’ rights

Atheist Ireland has obtained, under the Freedom of Information Act, notes of a meeting between the Department of Education and representatives of the Catholic Church in 2018. At that meeting, the Department told the Catholic Church that ETB schools must respect the constitutional rights of parents for their children to not attend religious instruction. Despite the discussion at this meeting, the then Minister for Education reneged on this commitment.

In publicly funded Catholic denominational schools at second level, and some ETB schools, Catholic religious instruction and faith formation is taught alongside the NCCA Religious Education course. Parents are not informed that this is happening and schools just inform parents that the NCCA Religious Education course is suitable for all religions and none and is not religious instruction. Students are just enrolled into the course.

The Department of Education is aware that this is happening and have failed in their duty to have due regard for the right of parents especially in the matter of religious and moral formation under Article 42.4 of the Irish Constitution. They also continue to fund schools when a condition of that funding has not been met. Under Article 44.2.4 parents have a right to ensure their children do not attend any religious instruction that is against their conscience.

In the notes of the 2018 meeting that Atheist Ireland got under FOI, the Department told the Catholic Church that parents need to be aware of what the school is teaching in relation to religion.

The Representatives from the Catholic Bishops stated that:

“It is the view of the representatives that the requirement now placed on schools to establish the wishes of parents to opt out of religious instruction and/or worship and offer alternative arrangements for subject choices undermines the robustness of the Deed of Trust and Model agreements.”

So establishing the wishes of parents, in relation to the religious instruction of their children, undermines the robustness of the Deeds of Trust and the Model Agreement in ETB schools. The Constitution upholds the rights of parents in relation to the religious education, formation and instruction of their children. Why do our rights take second place to the view of the Catholic Church in relation to the robustness of the Deeds of Trust and the Model Agreements of ETB schools and colleges? Are they afraid that given the choice, parents would exercise their constitutional right by ensuring their children to not attend religious instruction.

This meeting was in 2018 after the Department had issued Circular Letter 0013/2018 which told ETB schools to offer students another subject if parents exercised their Constitutional right to remove their child from religious instruction. The Catholic Bishops lobbied the Department, the Circular Letter was clarified, and the right to not attend religious education and be offered was removed.

This is what non religious parents and minority faith parents have to put up with in Ireland. The Catholic Church interferes in our Constitutional rights, and the Department of Education, when administering those rights, does not take into account what the Supreme Court has found in relation to parental rights.

At this meeting, the representatives of the Catholic Church told the Department that they felt that the public statements on the Circular Letter by the then Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, went beyond what was actually intended. Minister Bruton said he was going to give real choice for parent in relation to religion in ETB schools. It seems that the stated wishes of the then Minister were curtailed.

According to the meeting note, representatives for the Catholic church stated that:

The representatives advised that it is not true to state that the curriculum programme developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) meets their requirements for religious instruction.

The Department responded that:

The Department advised that parents need to be aware of whether the NCCA guidelines are a State curriculum or whether there are elements of religious instruction and worship involved in it. The representatives confirmed that the Bishops endorsed the NCCA program and that the Bishop’s guidelines could work alongside the NCCA program.

What the Department and the Representative of the Catholic Church were referring to were the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic students. Up to 2019 these Guidelines were taught alongside the NCCA Religious Education course. The course was updated in 2019. It is not an objective course about religions, beliefs and ethics. Student teachers of Religious Education in DCU must now become familiar with the Departments and the Bishops Guidelines on curriculum Religious Education as part of their learning activities. Why should they have to do this if the course was an objective course and not heavily influenced by the Catholic Church.

Denominational schools and some ETB have not stopped teaching Catholic religious instruction and faith formation alongside the NCCA Religious Education course.

The Department told the Catholic representatives that:

The Department fully accepted that there is an obligation in the Deeds of Trust for religious instruction, however, this obligation cannot be imposed unilaterally on all students. Parents of students should have to request access to Religious Instruction classes if the school is providing same. It is important for parents to be aware that theReligious Education curriculum is not necessarily confined to learning about  religions in instances where Religious Instruction is included.

The Department advised that this cannot be the position going forward as the composition of society has changed and there needs to be clarity on State education with schools having to establish what their school going population wants. With regard to providing the necessary clarity around the NCCA Religious Education subject, the Department advised that there is currently a review of the curriculum ongoing.

Despite what the Department said at this meeting, nothing has changed for minorities in publicly funded schools. ETBs continue to disregard the Constitutional right of parents in relation to the religious education, formation and instruction of their children.

Atheist Ireland’s Legal Opinion in 2020 stated that teaching Catholic faith formation alongside the NCCA Religious Education course without informing parents was an attack on the Constitutional rights of parents and their children.

The full notes of the 2018 meeting between the Department and the Catholic church can be found here FOIDept ofEducationCircularLetter

 

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