IHRC Discussion Paper Part 8 – International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

This is an extract from a discussion paper written by the Irish Human Rights Commission about religious education and human rights. Atheist Ireland is preparing a response to this discussion paper, and we welcome your feedback on it.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

44. Article 18 of the ICCPR provides:

“1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscienceand religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

45. The Human Rights Committee in its General Comment on this provision stated:

“The Committee is of the view that Article 18(4) permits public school instruction in subjects such as general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way.

The liberty of parents or legal guardians to ensure their children receive religious and moral education in conformity with their own convictions, set forth in Article 18(4), is related to the guarantees of the freedom to teach a religion or belief stated in Article 18(1).

The Committee notes that public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with Article 18(4) unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians.”

46. In the case of Unn and Ben Leirvag et al v Norway, the Human Rights Committee found there was a breach of Article 18 (4).17 The Committee stated that Article 18 covered not only the protection of traditional religions but also philosophies of life. It was also stated that under Article 18(4) religious education was permissible in schools if “given in a neutral and objective way” and provided that non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents were made available.

The Committee also found that having partial exemption arrangements did not satisfy the needs of the applicants. The CKREE (religious curriculum) was based on religious instruction and the partial exemption was impossible to implement in practice as, by having a subject that combined religious knowledge with the practicing of a particular religious belief, without a total exemption scheme, put a considerable burden on parents who wished to ensure that the religious and moral education of their children was in conformity with their own convictions.


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