Letter from Atheist Ireland to Irish Human Rights Commission about Education (Amendment) Bill 2010

Dear Sirs,

As the Commission is hosting a conference on Religion and Education; A Human Rights Perspective on November 27th we would like to inform you that Atheist Ireland is objecting to the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010 on the grounds that it will not guarantee and protect the Human Rights of the non-religious in the education system. Attached please find a brief that we sent to the Dail Education Committee that outlines our concerns that these New Vec Community Schools will not protect our Human Rights.

In December 2008 in the Supreme Court Case Louise O’Keeffe v Leo Hickey, The Minister for Education and Science, Ireland and the Attorney General, Mr. Justice Hardiman stated the following:-

“In my view the Constitution specifically envisages, not indeed a delegation but a ceding of the actual running of schools to the interests represented by the Patron and the Manager.”

The European Court of Human Rights has stated that a ‘State cannot absolve itself of its responsibility to educate by delegating that responsibility to private bodies and institutions’, (paras 26, 27 Costello Roberts v UK 1998). It is difficult to see how the State can protect the human rights of children and non-religious parents under the European Convention on Human Rights and the various Conventions that Ireland has ratified when they are ceding the running of these New VEC Community schools under The Education (Amendment) Bill 2010 to the interests of the Patron and the Manager.

In his opening remarks to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education on 14th February 2008, Mr. Kevin McCarthy, Director, Department of Education & Science stated that the Minister had publically announced her intention to devise a new model of primary school patronage which has the capacity to cater for the wishes of parents for denominational, multi-denominational and non-denominational education within the framework of a single patron model and a single board of management structure. See details here.

However in their reply to the Concluding Observations of the UN under the International Covenant on Civil & Political rights the Government stated that these schools will be Interdenominational in nature (CCPR.C.IRL.CO.3.Add.1 para 50). As Interdenominational schools are Christian Schools we cannot understand how these schools will cater for the wishes of non-religious parents seeking a secular education for their children based on human rights law.

The purpose of the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010 is to facilitate the VECs in acting as patron in the primary system or as Mr. Justice Hardiman put it to cede control of the running of these New VEC Community Schools to the interests of the Patron and the Manager. The Charter of the VECs do not refer to Human Rights and in the case of Co. Dublin VEC they only aspire to develop an ethos characterised by equality, respect, justice and fair play for all.  See details here.

The Government Rules for National Schools do not oblige schools to guarantee human rights to all parents and children. Rule 65 of these Rules state that:-

“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.”

Rule 65 will apply to these New VEC Community schools where non-religious parents are seeking a secular education for their children based on human rights law. It is Catholic Church teaching that religion must be integrated into all subjects even in State schools.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee a religious integrated curriculum denies parents access to a secular education and breaches their human rights, (CCPR.C.IRL.CO.3, para 22). The Human Rights Committee recommends that the State establish non-denominational schools throughout the country not interdenominational schools. In their response to this UN Report in August 2009 the Irish Government still maintain that all Irish Schools have traditionally welcomed students from all backgrounds, (CCPR.C.IRL.CO.3.Add.1 para 39).

They also maintained that any notion of children having to convert to Catholicism or any other religion or faith is wholly unfounded and is not supported by any evidence. However in May of 2009 before this Government Report to the UN Bishop Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick and Chair of the Bishop’s Department of Catholic Education and Formation acknowledged that the right to opt out of religious instruction in the Irish Constitution is not recognised in practice in denominational schools (page 10). See details here.

As the Government has not accepted that a religious integrated curriculum breaches the human rights of parents that seek a secular education for their children they have not provided protection for the human rights of children and non-religious parents in the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010. They are ceding control of these schools to the Vec and Managers who will not be obliged to guarantee the human rights of non-religious parents as they are not ‘organs of the state’.

In addition we are concerned about any multi-belief programme that is put in place in the New VEC Community Schools as it will not be based on the Toledo Guiding principles on teaching about religions and beliefs in schools as the Holy See has rejected these principles. Two United Nations experts and one from the Council of Europe contributed to this project. The Toledo Guiding principles take into account human rights in the teaching about religions and beliefs in schools. See details here.

Out of the 56 participating states to the OSCE the Holy See is the only one that has rejected these Guiding Principles. As the Catholic Church has not changed its teaching any multi-belief course that has the backing of the Irish Catholic Church cannot be in compliance with the Toledo Guiding principles as the Holy See has rejected them. As most teachers receive their training in denominational institutions we cannot understand how teachers of this subject are prepared for this task as they will have no training in human rights principles as the denominational institutions have rejected these Guiding Principles.

Atheist Ireland cannot understand how these new VEC primary schools can cater for the wishes of parents seeking a secular human rights based education for their children within the framework of a single patron model as obviously this model is expected to cater for parents seeking a Catholic denominational education which involves a religious integrated curriculum and non compliance with the Toledo Guiding Principles.

The European Court of Human Rights has stated that “The Convention is intended to guarantee not rights which are theoretical or illusory but rights which are practical and effective”, (Airey v Ireland 1979 – para 36 ECHR). As the Commission reviews Draft Legislation and makes recommendations to Government we respectively ask that you examine our concerns as there is nothing in the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010 that convinces us that any practical effect will be given to our human rights in these New VEC Community schools.

Yours faithfully,

Michael Nugent
Atheist Ireland


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