Not attending religious instruction classes
While we are campaigning for a secular Irish education system based on human rights law, you may wish to ensure that your child does not attend religion class in your current school. Here are some key facts that you will find helpful, and sample letters that you can use to tell your school that you do not wish your child to attend religious instruction.
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.
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 education of their children must be read in the context of Article 44.2.4 – the right to not attend religious instruction.
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 parents beliefs.
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 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 principle applies.
The courts in Ireland have said that parents have absolute rights in relation to their religious or philosophical convictions so 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.
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 to opt out 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.
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.
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 those 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 an ETB school forces your child into curriculum Religious Education then you can make a formal complaint to the Board of Management, then to 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 religion 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.
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.
Unfortunately, after lobbying from the Catholic Church, the ETBs, and the TUI, the Department issued another Circular Letter in October 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,28 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. Article 44.2.4 the right to not attend religious instruction is a sub section of the Constitutional right to freedom of conscience and religion.
If any ETB school or college tries to force your child into the NCCA religion course you can inform them that a recent Legal Opinion that Atheist Ireland states that:-
In the context of the present instructions, it is my view that the question whether a subject gives rise to the right to opt out will be turn on the question whether the subjects leave reasonable room for the parent and child’s non-belief. If parents apprehend reasonably that the content of the course, or the manner in which it is taught, is fundamentally inconsistent with the child’s atheist views, or that the course may cause an unwanted change in the child’s atheist views, there is a good prospect that the course will give rise to the right to opt out. In this regard, and owing to the interlocking nature of the constitutional provisions mentioned earlier, I think that the right to opt out of religious instruction should be interpreted in consonance with the freedom of conscience guaranteed to the
citizen, which embraces the right to not believe in or profess any religious views.
67. As mentioned earlier, the fact that the NCCA courses relates to more than one particular religion is not determinative of the question whether these courses might constitute religious instruction.
The main Aim of the NCCA religious education course introduced to schools in September 2019 is to develop values in student to enable then to see the relevance of religion to their lives, relationships and the wider world. If the main aim of any course was to teach children about the relevance of atheism to their lives it would be considered indoctrination and the right to not attend under the Constitution would be engaged as well as the rights of religious parents to freedom of religion.
The NCCA Religious education course is religious instruction and the right to not attend is engaged.
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 faith formation (The Guideline for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic students).
Schools cannot force or coerce your child to take any type of religion classes. 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.