The Republic of Ireland has approximately 3,300 primary schools. The Irish State ‘provides for’ education and almost all of our national schools are publicly funded. In Ireland, a National school is a type of primary school that is financed directly by the State, but administered jointly by the State, a patron body, and local representatives. This patronage system means that, in essence, our national schools are private with over 90% of them run by the Catholic church.
Under their ‘Catholic First’ admissions policy many of our national schools classify non-Catholic children as ‘Category 2’ . This means that if a local national school is oversubscribed a child from the school’s catchment area can be turned away solely on the basis of whether they have been baptised or not. Apparently this discrimination is justified because these 4-year olds have not been cleansed of ‘original sin’. Religious freedom was conceived to ensure freedom from discrimination in this instance it seems to be used as a license to discriminate. In desperation many parents have resorted to baptising their children into a religion that they don’t believe in.
If these category 2 children do gain access to their local school their parents can choose to opt them out of religion classes. However Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, (“Of all parts of a school curriculum, Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school”) means that opting out is not, in reality, an option because religion permeates the entire day including lessons in non-religious lessons like spelling and maths.
It is a fundamental human right to be educated without being indoctrinated with or converted to any religion. The Irish State, through its ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights and other UN Conventions has agreed to respect the religious and philosophical convictions of all parents within the Irish education system.
State funding of schools based on a particular majority in any given area results in segregation, discrimination and a denial of basic human rights. The provision of local schools for people of all religions and non-religions is financially and legally untenable. In contrast running state schools on a secular basis vindicates the rights of all parents to freedom of conscience, religion and beliefs.
Opting out of religious instruction, education and faith formation is in reality not possible. Young impressionable children, whose parents have ‘opted out’, are frequently expected to ‘sit in’ during religious instruction but not listen. Furthermore religious instruction, practices, prayers and iconography populate the school day and so parents cannot exempt their children from these pervasive, influential and integrated elements. In addition, the considerable time afforded to sacrament preparation deprives children of the right to an effective education, arguably disadvantaging them compared to children who are not subjected to such religious preparation. The Irish State does not recognise that this kind of religious integration violates the conscience of non-religious parents and children. Non-religious parents currently have no means to vindicate their human rights.
Despite Article 42.3.1 of the Irish Constitution, (“The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.”) parents are obliged to send children to schools in violation of their conscience and lawful preference because there is nowhere else to send their children to school.
Due to the Catholic Church’s discriminatory ‘Catholic First’ school admissions policies, non-religious children or children of non-catholic religions are denied their right to equality forcing many to baptise their children into a faith that they do not believe in simply to gain access to their fundamental right to education. The State must vindicate the rights of all parents to a state-funded education for their children.
Running state schools on a secular basis vindicates the rights of all parents to freedom of conscience, religion and beliefs.
A version of this blog post was published in the Irish Times 8 August 2015