Beyond time for action as Government ignores 20 public consultations on religious discrimination in schools

Last week the Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced yet another public consultation process in relation to the education system. It will be the eleventh such national consultation in just over six years on different aspects of religious discrimination in Irish schools. Atheist Ireland has actively contributed to all of these consultation processes.

There have also been ten UN and Council of Europe Recommendations since 2005 telling Ireland to stop breaching the human rights of atheists and minority faith members in schools. Behind each of these were more public consultations and submissions. Atheist Ireland has actively contributed to all of these processes since we were founded in 2008.

Despite this being the eleventh national public consultation in six years, and despite ten international reports which invited public submissions, nothing has changed in the education system.

This latest Consultation process will not remove religious discrimination in the education system, and based on the current proposals, it would make the situation worse for atheist, secular and religious minority families.

Everything that could be said about human rights and religion in Irish schools has already been said at one stage or another through these various Consultation processes, but nothing has been done to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected.

No political will to end religious discrimination

At this stage, it is clear that this government (like previous governments) simply has not got the political will to protect the rights of minorities by removing religious discrimination.

Bizarrely, the Minister for Education is now arguing that the Admission to Schools Bill is not the best place to address religious discrimination in admission to schools.

What he is doing is similar to what the Fine Gael-Labour Government, in which he was also a Minister, did with regard to protecting atheist and minority faith teachers from religious discrimination.

They said in that Programme for Government:

“People of non-faith or minority religious backgrounds and publicly identified LGBT people should not be deterred from training or taking up employment as teachers in the State”.

Then, when it came to passing that law, they simply dropped the commitment to protect non-faith or minority religious teachers, and restricted the protection to LGBT teachers.

This means that schools cannot now discriminate against a teacher because the teacher is LGBT, which is welcome, but they can still discriminate against the same teacher on the ground of religion.

Also, the current Minister, like his predecessors, is directly the patron of nine publicly funded national primary schools called Model Schools, which were set up as non-denominational. Five of these now have a Catholic ethos and four have a Protestant ethos. Some of them discriminate in access.

The Minister could end this aspect of religious discrimination today, without having to convince the Catholic Church or other religious patron bodies to do anything. But he is not doing so. Atheist Ireland asked the previous Minister about this, and she said that they have this ethos because of tradition.

Constitutional Review Group Report 1995

Long before these twenty recent reports, and as far back as 1995, the Constitutional Review Group Report had already addressed this issue and in particular the state funding of schools.

They pointed out that the State funding of schools had Constitutional conditions, and that these conditions must be met, as otherwise such funding would amount to an endowment of religion contrary to the Constitution.

Those conditions (under Article 44.2.4) were meant to safeguard the Constitutional rights of minorities. The State ‘provides for’ the education of minorities in publicly funded National Schools with a religious Patron body. It is clear that over the years those safeguards have been whittled away to nothing.

Remember that the National School system was meant to be open to all children in a particular community. When they were established there was complete separation between religious and secular subjects.

The Constitutional Review Group Report stated that:

Article 44.2.4

Article 44.2.4 deals with two distinct provisions. The first is that legislation providing for State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the ‘management of different religious denominations’. The principle of non-discrimination between religions is, of course, already dealt with in Article 44.2, but this subsection applies this principle in an educational context. Article 44.2.4 also provides constitutional authority for the State funding of denominational education (provided the criteria specified in the sub-section are complied with, as otherwise it might be contended that such funding would amount to an endowment of religion, contrary to Article 44.2). In effect, therefore, the State is permitted to engage in the practice of what might be termed the concurrent endowment of the schools of all religious denominations, provided that:

a) this is achieved by legislation

b) there is no discrimination between the religious denominations

c) any school receiving public monies respects the right of each child to attend without receiving religious instruction at that school.”

“Or would these practices go beyond what is permitted by Article 44.2.4 and amount to a form of discrimination by the State on grounds of religion, contrary to Article 44.2.3? While it might be argued that, where such discrimination occurs, it is done by the schools concerned (which are private bodies), the fact remains that it is the State which funds virtually all of their activities.

In summary, therefore, the present reality of the denominational character of the school system does not accord with Article 44.2.4°. The situation is clearly unsatisfactory. Either Article 44.2.4 should be changed or the school system must change to accommodate the requirements of Article 44.2.4.”

“ii) if Article 44.2.4° did not provide these safeguards, the State might well be in breach of its international obligations, inasmuch as it might mean that a significant number of children of minority religions (or those with no religion) might be coerced by force of circumstances to attend a school which did not cater for their particular religious views or their conscientious objections. If this were to occur, it would also mean that the State would be in breach of its obligations under Article 42.3.1°”

The State violates the conscience of atheist and minority faith parents

The Minister for Education, Richard Bruton will continue the tradition in this Republic and ignore the State’s obligations under Article 42.3.1. This Article states that:

“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.”

The State does oblige parents to send their children to schools that are in violation of their conscience. The vast majority of parents have no choice but to send their children to schools with a Catholic ethos. They are legally obliged to send their children to school.

Home schooling is not a valid option to release the State from its human rights obligations. This article explains why.

Catholic schools evangelise minorities into a religious way of life. They also give preference to co-religionists. That is the purpose of Catholic schools and parents cannot opt their children out of religion that is integrated into the State curriculum.  Home schooling is not a valid option.

The State continues to undermine the rights of minorities in schools

The Consultation process promised last week will mean that religious discrimination is to stay. It seems to be a desperate attempt to pretend that they are doing something while doing nothing.

It is difficult to understand how the Minister can even claim that they are getting rid of religious discrimination, when the options presented are going to do nothing to remove the fact that publicly funded schools with a religious ethos can continue to give preference to children from co-religionists, and one of the options adds that parents would have to sign a declaration supporting the religious ethos of the school.

Eleventh National Consultation process in the last six years

Here is a list of the various National Consultations that have taken place in the last six years.

In March 2011 the Forum on Patronage & Pluralism was announced. It published its Report in April 2012. There were two rounds of public consultations on the Forum. The Report made Recommendations to change the education system; this also included a Recommendation on access to schools.  The Report from the Forum was largely ignored by the Department of Education and its Recommendations have not been enacted. The Submissions are available on the Department of Education & Skills website.

In May 2011 the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission published a Document called Religion and Education; A Human Rights Perspective. Part of the Document published excerpts from a consultation process that the Commission held. This Document made Recommendation to change the education system to ensure that it complied with Ireland’s Human Rights obligations. The IHREC is a statutory body set up and funded by the State. This Report was ignored by the Dept of Education. None of the Recommendations were taken on board. The Submissions made are available on IHREC’s website.

In June 2011 the Department of Education published a Discussion Paper on a Regulatory Framework for School Enrolment. Submissions were invited. No changed as a result of this consultation and religious discrimination in access to education continued.

In September 2013 the Department of Education (Ruairi Quinn was the Minister) launched another consultation on ‘Inclusiveness in Primary Schools’. Another round of Submissions followed with a deadline of November 2013. According to the Department of Education the purpose of the consultation was “Following the consultation process, the Forum Report findings and recommendations in this area and the submissions received will be considered in drafting a White Paper as set out in the Programme for Government.” The White Paper never materialised and nothing was even done. The Submissions were never published on the Department website.

In November 2013 the then Equality Authority (now IHREC) launched a consultation process/call for submissions on Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998-2011. The consultation was in relation to the proposed amendment to Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which discriminates against atheist and minority faiths. This process was started as a result of the Programme for Government. There was a commitment to remove the religious discrimination in the Act but the then government reneged on this.

In 2013 the Department of Education referred a Draft General Scheme and draft regulations on an Admission to Schools Bill 2013 to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection, to allow a full public discussion, including inputs from parents and the education partners. The proposed Bill did not remove religious discrimination in access to education. The Committee considered the submissions received, and invited individuals and groups to a public hearing. The Committee’s report was published in March 2014. Nothing was ever done as a result of this Report.

In 2015 the National Council for Curriculum & Assessment launched a consultation process in relation to the Education About Religions, Beliefs and Ethics. This was based on a recommendation from the Forum on patronage & Pluralism. Submissions were invited and a Report has gone to the Minister, but as yet has not been published (it has been leaked to some degree).

In September 2016 the Minister for Education launched an Action Plan for Education, aimed at becoming the best education service in Europe. This was another consultation process, and submissions were invited. There are no proposals in the action plan to remove religious discrimination in schools.

In 2016 Minister Richard Bruton published another Education (Admissions) to School Bill 2016. This Bill has been referred to the Oireachtas Education Committee and submissions can be made. Public hearings are also taking place. This Bill will not remove religious discrimination in access to schools.

On 16 January 2017 Minister Bruton and Dept of Education again set off another consultation process in relation to admissions to schools and religious discrimination. The Minister outlined four options, none of which will remove religious discrimination access to schools, and one of which will make things worse.

Ten consultations involving International Human Rights Bodies

There have also been ten UN and Council of Europe Recommendations since 2005 telling Ireland to stop breaching the human rights of atheists and minority faith members in schools. Behind each of these were more public consultations and submissions. Atheist Ireland has actively contributed to all of these processes since we were founded in 2008.

The most recent was last year when Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, visited Ireland. Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland met him. He was very grateful to us for the information which we gave him about the Irish education system

Commissioner Muiznieks will be reporting within three months on his visit to Ireland, but before he left he made clear that he will conclude that Ireland has to end religious discrimination in all schools. He said that he had never seen anything like it elsewhere. He described it as patron bodies holding the State to ransom.

Anticipating this year’s report by Commissioner Muiznieks, the ten international reports are:

  • Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner 2017
  • United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child 2016
  • United Nations Committee on ESC Rights 2015
  • United Nations Human Rights Committee 2014
  • Council of Europe Commission Against Racism and Intolerance 2013
  • United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2011
  • United Nations Human Rights Committee 2008
  • Council of Europe Protection of National Minorities 2006
  • United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child 2006
  • United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2005

Way beyond time for action

Despite this being the eleventh national public consultation in six years, and despite ten international reports which invited public submissions, nothing has changed in the education system.

Everything that could be said about the education system, human rights and religion has already been said at one stage or another through these various Consultation processes.

It is way beyond time for action.

Please consider joining Atheist Ireland to help us to campaign for a human rights based education system that respects equally the rights of all parents, children, and teachers. You can find details here.


  1. Avatar
    paul berry January 24, 2017

    I grow tired of government not grasping the bull by the horns and refusing to separating state and religion for once and for all. My view is that religion is a personal choice and as such should be kept private. If parents want their children to have a religion prior to them being able to make their own decisions then it should be done outside all levels of education. Let the specific religions set up their own Saturday or Sunday schools which people can attend if they so choose. However because our government is made up of a load of old catholic school teachers this seems near on impossible. People need to put pressure on government.

  2. Avatar
    Gerard Rodgers May 15, 2017

    This is just a shameful waste of scare resources this circling the wagons. Is it any wonder Donald Trump was elected in America.


Leave reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.