The right of the child to freedom of conscience, religion and belief

In a speech called “The future of Ireland Human rights and children’s rights”, the former President Mary McAleese said that she wanted to come to the debate over education in a different way from the usual arguments about integrated education, reduction of Catholic school patronage, or how to provide opt-outs or options for those who wish to withdraw from religious education.

Her speech raised the issue of the Right of the Child to Freedom of Conscience under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Catholic Church philosophy of education and human rights law are incompatible. In Ireland, teachers are trained to understand freedom of conscience, religion and belief according to the Catholic Church and not Human Rights Law.

The Right of the Child to freedom of conscience, religion and belief is an area that gets little attention but it has been raised before by Atheist Ireland, the Ombudsman for children and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

In their Concluding Observations on the examination of Ireland the United Nations Committee on the Right of the Child also made a Recommendation on the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief of children. This abuse of the rights of the child has got attention in Ireland but the State is unwilling to take on the Catholic Church who still has influence and control over our education system.

Over the years Atheist Ireland has assisted children who wish to opt-out of religion in schools. Children contact Atheist Ireland by email or through facebook. All of them had been forced into the religion class or practice even when their parents agreed that they could opt-out.

Section 30 of the Education Act 1998 fails to recognise the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and fails to address the evolving capacities of the child. It only recognises the right of parents in the matter of conscience, it states that:

“The Minister – shall not require any student to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student.”

The Irish State has done nothing about recognising the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief of children because of the influence of the Catholic Church in the education system. The Catholic Church sees schools under their patronage as coming under Canon Law. The Holy See in their Submission to the UN under the Convention on the Rights of the Child stated that:-

“The Holy See promotes and encourages the system of Catholic schools, which are not State institutions but nonetheless have a public function. The educational activities are carried out in accordance with the Catholic school’s own authority and responsibility under canon law, and pursuant to the laws of the respective States in which they operate:”

The Catholic Church has rejected the Toledo Guiding Principles on teaching about religions and beliefs in schools. The International Guiding Principles are based on human rights.

Out of the 56 States in the OSCE, the Holy See is the only one that has rejected the Toledo Guiding Principles. Their reason for rejecting these human rights-based guidelines was:

The Document contains a reductive view of religion and a conception of the secular nature of States and their neutrality that obfuscates the positive role of religion, its specific nature and contribution to society.”

The Department of Education dropped a proposed course in Primary Schools that would teach about Religion, beliefs in an objective, critical and pluralistic manners. This was a Recommendation from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. The reason it was dropped is because the Catholic Bishops objected to it on the grounds that it promoted pluralism.

Some of the reasons for their objections were in relation to the freedom of conscience, religion and belief of children. They stated that:

“Children’s perceptions can make an important contribution to pedagogy. However, the postmodern pedagogical process suggested by the NCCA may form children in the view that they are the most important determinants of the meaning of their own beliefs. It is likely that young children could be given the impression that beliefs are things which they create themselves, as if human beings were the source of religious beliefs. This approach contradicts the method followed in other subjects and could therefore create considerable confusion for the young child in particular.”

“these secular approaches to Religious Education, reason is primary. Children are invited to stand back from religions and beliefs. In Catholic schools, Revelation is primary and the learner’s experience and reason are brought into dialogue with it. The NCCA curriculum will invite Catholic children to engage in the domain of religion in a way that undermines their capacity to immerse themselves in their own religion.

  1. There is a presumed sceptical neutrality of reason in relation to religious beliefs. This is problematic for Catholic religious education because it suggests that religious meaning is determined by what one believes to be true.
  2. These approaches require teachers to adopt and promote a pluralist approach to religion. This is an approach to religion that goes against the philosophical basis of Catholic religious education. Such a contradiction would place teachers in a very difficult position where conflicting philosophical approaches to religious education would have the potential to create significant confusion.”

The Catholic Church is correct in pointing out the contradictions in teacher training. In Ireland, teachers are trained to understand freedom of conscience, religion and belief according to the Catholic Church and not human rights. In DCU there are two Denominational Centres, Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland. The purpose of these centres is to ensure that the distinctive identity, values and learning traditions are maintained and promoted in teacher education.

The Agreement between the Mater Dei and DCU States that:

“The core curriculum for teacher preparation will be denominationally neutral and common to all but will, as required, allow for the delivery of modules to prepare teachers appropriately for employment in denominational schools.”

So a non-denominational, secular University, officially committed to pluralism, trains teachers to base freedom of conscience, religion and belief according to Canon law instead of human rights law. DCU simply ignores its public sector duty to eliminate discrimination and protect human rights.


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