Not attending religious instruction classes
While we are campaigning for the Constitutional rights and human rights of non religious parents, you may wish to ensure that your child does not attend any type of religion class in your current school. Here are some key facts that you will find helpful, and draft sample letters that you can use to tell your school that you do not wish your child to attend religious instruction.
The draft sample letters cover all your rights, however you can just do up a short letter requesting your child not attend religious instruction. The draft sample letters cover all your rights but are draft letters.
If you find yourself in the position that you have to write to the school to ensure your child does not attend religous instruction then the school is in breach of Section 62-7(n) of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018. Please see the section on “Admission Policies must provide details of the arrangements for students not attending religious instruction” below.
Legal Opinion on Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution – The right to not attend religious instruction
In August 2020 Atheist Ireland got a Legal Opinion on the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction.
This Legal Opnion covers primary and second level. You can download this Legal Opinion and send it to the school while exercising your right for your child to not attend religious instruction, formation and worship.
The Burke v Minister for Education case in 2022 at the Supreme Court has defined and upheld the rights of all parents in the education system. It supercedes our Legal Opinion as it defines Article 42.1 and Article 42.4. Because of this case at the Supreme Court we have updated this page to reflect their findings in relation to the rights of parents and their children particularly under Article 41, Article 42.1 and Article 42.4 of the Constitution.
Sample letters are below for Primary schools (Denominational and ETB) and Second Level (Denominational and ETB). The Legal Opinion discusses the NCCA Religious Education curriculum course at second level as well as patron developed religion courses at primary level.
- Not attending Religion classes in all Primary schools
- Not attending Religion classes in second level ETB schools and Colleges
- Not attending Religion classes in second level Denomnational schools.
Under Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution students do not have to attend religious instruction class. Article 44.2.4 is a sub section of Article 44.1 – the right to freedom of conscience and religion. The very purpose of the right to not attend religious instruction is to protect the right to freedom of conscience and religion of parents and their children.
The Supreme Court has said that the rights of parents in relation to the religious and moral education of their children (Art 42.1) must be read in the context of Article 44.2.4 – the right to not attend religious instruction (Campaign case v Minister for Education – Supreme Court 1998).
The Supreme Court in the recent Burke case have said that the purpose of Article 42.1 of the Constitution is one of non interferance by the State in the rights of parents in relation to the religious and moral education of their children. They found that:-
“It is, in any event, part of the right and duty of parents to provide (and therefore the right of their children to receive) education under Article 42.1, which right the State has guaranteed to respect. The Irish text of Article 42.1 provides an important flavour in this regard:- “… ráthaíonn [An Stát] gan cur isteach ar cheart doshannta ná ar dhualgas doshannta tuistí chun oideachas … a chur ar fáil dá gclainn” which conveys the sense that the State cannot interfere with (cur isteach ar) the right of parents subject to the Constitution to provide education under Article 42.1, a right which Article 42.2 contemplates may take place at home.”
According to the Supreme court, it is parents that get to decide what is or is not suitable religious or moral education for their children (Art 42.1). Parents can provide this education (religious and moral) for their children at home while accessing other curriculum subjects in schools (Art 42.2).
Schools have no right to demand that students that exercise their Constitutional right to not attend religion class study some other philosophical text or religion. Giving parents a list of suggested material for their child to study during the time that religion class takes place is interfering in parents Constitutional right under Article 42.1.
Some Catholic and ETB schools inform parents that the school is obliged under Section 9 (d) of the Education Act 1998 to promote the moral and spiritual development of all students. Section 9 of the Education Act also says that schools must do this in consultation with parents.
If you have exercised your right to remove your child from any religious or moral education and have decided to develop the moral or spiritual education of your child at home then the school must respect your Constitutional right to do so. They cannot oblige your child to study some religious or philosophical text when they are exercising their Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction. Schools use this Section of the Act as a means to interfere in the rights of parents and their children and to stem the flow of students that seek their right to not attend religious instruction.
The framers of our Constitution singled out religious instruction/teaching over other subjects and Article 44.2.4 gives students the right to not attend. Non attendance is a condition of the state funding of schools.
Atheist Ireland has recently made a complaint to the Comptroller and Auditor General about the misuse of public funds by the Department of Education in relation to Article 44.2.4 and also Article 42.4.
Section 30 2 (e) of the Education Act 1998 reflects this Constitutional right and Section 15 -2 (e) of the Education Act 1998 obliges the school to respect all parents beliefs. Section 6 (a) of the Education Act 1998 obliges every person concerned with the Act to give practical effect to the Constitutional rights of children.
At Primary level Rule 69 – 2(a) of the Rules for National schools states that:-
“No pupil shall receive, or be present at, any religious instruction of which his parents or guardians disapprove”
In addition to the above the Supreme Court in the Campaign to Separate Church and State case has stated that:-
Secondly, the Constitution contemplated that if a school was in receipt of public funds any child, no matter what his religion, would be entitled to attend it. But such a child was to have the right not to attend any course of religious instruction at the school.” (page 24)
“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:-….”
“Secondly while it is obviously right and proper that a Chaplain should counsel and advise any child who may consult him about its problems it would be constitutionally impermissible for a Chaplain to instruct a child in a religion other than its own without the knowledge and consent of its parents.” (Campaign to Separate Church and State 1998)
There is no difference between a Chaplain instructing a child in a religion other than its own and a teacher instructing a child. The exact same Constitutional principles apply.
The Supreme court has said in the Burke case that Article 42.1 of the Constitution harmonises with Article 41 (the authority of the family). It is not up to the Department of Education, Patron bodies, schools or teachers to decide what is or is not against the conscience of parents. The State is forbidden from discriminating between those with religious beliefs and those with no religous beliefs. Atheist and secular parents have the exact same Constitutional rights as religious parents and under Article 44.1, they have the right to freedom of conscience.
If teachers or schools inform parents that a particular religion course is suitable for their children that does not take away your constitutional right to not attend the course. Claiming that such a course is suitable for your child is just their opinion because it is parents that get to decide this under the Constitution. Don’t let them force or coerce your child into any religion class, you don’t even have to discuss the issue with them.
In the Burke v Minister for Education casein February 2022, the court found that:-
“Article 42.4, in requiring the State to provide for “free primary education”, also places an endeavour, but only that, before the State “to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative” and “when the public good requires it” towards “other educational facilities or institutions”. 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.”
At Primary and second level, schools ignore the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction on the basis of conscience and many students are coerced into taking religion classes.
It is not up to the Department of Education, Patron bodies, schools or teachers to decide what is or is not against the conscience of parents.
If students do manage to exercise their Constitutional right under Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution, they are left sitting in the back of the class. No other subject is provided. This includes schools with a religious ethos and schools under the patronage of Education and Training Boards. There are other courses such as the Goodness You, Goodness Me course in Community National schools at primary level. This has elements of religious and moral education and you have a right to exercise your Constituitonal rights and remove your child from it.
These schools all claim that they are inclusive but they still require students to sit at the back of the religion class and they refuse to provide another subject or supervision outside the religion instruction class, religious formation and religous ceremonies despite the fact that they have accepted state funding on that basis. Atheist and secular families are discriminated against because they exercise their Constitutional rights in relation to the religious and moral education of their children.
It is not challenging or undermining the ethos of any school if you exercise your Constitutional rights in relation to the religious and moral education and formation of your child.
Schools obliged to use existing funding
A Legal Opinion that Atheist Ireland got in August 2020 says that schools are obliged to use existing state funding to facilitate the right to not attend religious instruction without demanding extra state funding. To come to any other conclusion would render the enjoyment of the right to not attend religious instruction contingent on the level of funding. This would fly in the face of the plain text of Article 44.2.4°.
The Legal Opinion goes on to state that:-
“90. It is worth reiterating at this point my view that the right to opt out is not a right exercisable solely in the context of the adequacy of the level of funding to a school. Provided the school is a public school receiving some State funding, the right must be respected, whether or not the funding is adequate.”
You can find that Legal Opinion here https://www.teachdontpreach.ie/2020/08/legal-opinion-on-the-constitutional-right-to-not-attend-religious-instruction/
GDPR regulations means that your child has a right to not attend religious instruction without disclosing your religious or philosophical convictions. Schools have no right to interrogate you about your religious or philosophical convictions as a condition of not attending religious instruction. You can make a complaint to the Data Commissioner if your school insists that your disclose your convictions or puts you in a position that you are obliged to reveal your convictions.
Section 1.3 of the Code of Professional conduct for teachers obliges teachers to be committed to equality and inclusion to respecting and accommodating diversity including difference arising from religion. If a teacher or principal disrespects your convictions then you can make a complant to the Teaching Council.
2. Not attending Religion classes in Primary schools
You have a Constitutional right under Article 44.2.4, Article 42.1 and 44.2.1 of the Irish Constitution to remove your child from religious instruction in schools and any religious formation and worship.
No school has the right to force your child to take religion classes and they cannot make it a condition of access either. You have a Constitutional right to attend any school in receipt of state funding and ensure that your child does not attend anything that is against your conscience and that includes religion classes and any religious formation and worship.
Section 30 (2) -(e) of the Education Act 1998 permits your child to not attend religious instruction that is contrary to your conscience as the parent of the student or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student.
This section of the Education Act 1998 does not refer to religion classes in particular so you can ensure that your child does not attend any subject that is against your conscience and in any publicly funded school.
Admission Policies must provide details of the arrangements for students not attending religious instruction.
Section 62(7)(n) of the Education (Admissions) to Schools Act 2018 states that schools that provide religious instruction (the vast majority of schools) must now put the arrangements for students who do not wish to attend religious instruction in their Admissions Policies. Section 62-(7)(n) states that:-
“… provide details of the school’s arrangements in respect of any student, where the parent of that student, or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student, has requested that the student attend the school without attending religious instruction at the school (which arrangements shall not result in a reduction in the school day in respect of the student concerned).”
This part of the Act commenced on 1st February 2020 and obliges schools to put in their Admision Policies:-
(a) put in place arrangements for students wishing to not attend religious instruction,
(b) to ensure that those arrangements do not result in a reduction of the school day, and
(c) that such arrangements are documented.
The recent Legal Opinion that Atheist Ireland got on on Section 62-7(n) of the Education (Admissions to schools) Act 2018 states that:-
“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 (para 109).”
The above sample letters cover denominational schools and ETB Community National schools.
3. Not attending Religious instruction in second level ETB schools and Colleges
You have a Constitutional right to ensure that your child does not attend the NCCA curriculum religious education course (an exam subject) at junior or leaving certificate level.
If any school ETB or Catholic forces your child into curriculum (NCCA) Religious Education then you can make a formal complaint to the Board of Management, the Ombudsman for Children or the Workplace Relations Commission.
You can also complain to the Department of Education as it is the Minister for Education that is legally responsible under Section 30 -2 (e) of the Education Act 1998. You can also make a complaint about the teacher or principal to the Teaching Council under Section 1.3 of the Code of Professional conduct for teachers.
Under Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act all ETB schools and colleges are obliged to:-
Protect Human Rights
Most ETBs ignore this obligation and coerce students into NCCA religious education classes by claiming that the right to not attending religious instruction under the Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution is confind to not attending religious instruction according to the rites on one religion. They then claim that the NCCA Religious education course is not religius instruction and the right to not attend does not apply. There is no legal basis for this claim and it is just made up to undermine the rights of minorities.
In February 2018 the Department of Education issued a Circular Letter on religion in ETB schools and colleges. This Circular Letter applied to all Community Schools, Non-designated Community Colleges and Designated Community Colleges. You can find the Circular Letter here.
The Circular Letter obliged every ETB school and college to find out, and implement, what parents want in relation to the religious education of their children.
Circular Letter 0013/2018 stated that the Circular was based on the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction under Article 44.2.4 and under Section 30-2(e) of the Education Act 1998.
Unfortunately, after lobbying from the Catholic Church, the ETBs, and the TUI, the Department issued another Circular Letter in October 2018 – Circular 0062/2018. That new Circular Letter reversed some of the rights that were vindicated in the original one. However, these Circular Letters cannot remove your Constitutional Right to ensure that your child does not attend religious instruction. According to the Legal Opinion on Circular Letters it states that:-
32. The Department of Education has published two circulars concerning religion in schools, namely circulars 0013/2018 and 0062/2018.27 While circulars do not have any legal effect, they assist with understanding the present arrangements between the Department of Education and schools.
Under the first Circular Letter issued by the Department of Education in February 2018 (0013/2018), parents could opt their children out of the following and choose another subject.
- Religious instruction classes in one religion
- The State Religious Education curriculum (exam subject)
- Combined religious instruction and the State Religious Education course.
The second Circular Letter issued by the Department of Education 0062/2018 undermined the right to not attend religious instruction classes, by claiming that there was a distinction between religious classes in one religion (which it called Religious Instruction) and religion classes in the State Religious Education curriculum, which it called Religious Education (NCCA RE course). The Department of Education claims that the need to opt out does not arise under Article 44.2.4.
ETB schools and colleges are also obliged to put in their Admission Policies the detailed arrangements for those students who exercise their Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction – Section 62 – 7 (n) Education (Admission) to Schools Act 2018.
Not attending Religion classes in Denominational schools
Students have a right to not attend religion classes in Dennominational schools. As far as we are aware nearly all Catholic denominaitonal schools combine the NCCA religious education coure with Catholic Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic students.
Schools cannot force or coerce your child to take any type of religion classes. The recent Burke case at the Supreme Court has upheld the rights of parents in relation to the religious and moral education of their children. These rights belong to parents, Patron bodies, teachers and schools are not even mentioned.
Section 62(7)(n) of the Education (Admission) to Schools Act 2018 applies and detailed arrangements should be in the schools Admission Policy. If it is not available you can complain to the Board of Management and the Ombudsman for Children.
The recent Legal Opinion got by Atheist Ireland states that combining Catholic faith formation with the NCCA religion course and refusing an opt out is an unlawful, ststematic and stark attack on the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction in State funded schools. All publicly funded schools with a Catholic ethos have religious instruction.
76. The above material suggests that the NCCA religion course for junior certificate was molded with input from religious bodies who in turn designed guidelines for the supplementation of the NCCA junior certificate course with Catholic faith formation and development. It is impossible in those circumstances to see any justification whatsoever for withholding the right of a student to opt out of such a course. The intricate architecture comprising the NCCA syllabus layered with guidelines and various assertions cannot overcome the fundamental principle that a child must be permitted to not attend religious instruction in State funded schools. Teaching Catholic instruction during the State religion syllabus, without offering a supervised opt out, represents an unlawful, systematic and stark attack on the right to not attend religious instruction in State funded schools.
If a denominational school is forcing your child to take curriculum Religious Education classes you can take a case to the Ombudsman for children or the WRC. You can also report them to the Department of Education.