Catholic school guidelines on inclusion deny the rights of secularists

The Joint Managerial Body (JMB) for second level Religious schools has issued revised Guidelines for the ‘Inclusion of Other Beliefs in Catholic Secondary Schools’. These revised Guidelines undermine the rights of minorities. They are based on fear and control dressed up in the language of inclusion. The Catholic Church is really good at that.

The inclusion of parents who seek secular education for their children is just left out. The fear that the Church has of parents who seek secular education for their children means that Catholic schools pretend that these parents don’t exist, so that including these families doesn’t become an issue.

Most Atheists and Humanists are secularists, and there are also religious secularists, and many of them have no choice but to attend schools with a Catholic ethos.

The European Court has said that:-

“58. Secondly, the Court emphasises that the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the “level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” required for them to be considered “convictions” within the meaning of Articles 9 of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1 (see Campbell and Cosans v. the United Kingdom, 25 February 1982, § 36, Series A no. 48). More precisely, their views must be regarded as “philosophical convictions”, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, given that they are worthy of “respect ‘in a democratic society’”, are not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental right of the child to education (ibid.)”. (Para 58 Lautsi v Italy ECHR)

The European Court recognises that the supporters of secularism have the exact same rights as religious parents in the education system. The European Court has also said that respecting parents’ convictions means more than ‘acknowledge’ or ‘take into account’ as, otherwise, you pursue an aim of indoctrination. This is one of their General Principles.

Families who seek secular education for their children are not even ‘acknowledged’ in these Guidelines on Inclusion in Catholic schools. You really couldn’t show any more disrespect than that. Mentioning that Atheists and Humanists attend Catholic schools doesn’t get to the core of the issue without recognising that they, along with many religious parents, seek secular education for their children on the grounds of conscience.

The courts in Ireland have said that the Irish Constitution has developed the significance of parental rights as guaranteed by human rights law, and in addition has imposed obligations on the State in relation to them (page 38 – Campaign to Separate Church & State, High Court).

Inclusion doesn’t mean that you give lip service to Constitutional and Human Rights, and then undermine them by giving them no practical application on the ground.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in their Report on Religion & Education; A Human Rights Perspective in 2011 stated that:-

“230 – If Barrington J’s judgement suggests that a child of a minority religion, or from a non faith background, with no choice but to attend a Roman Catholic school other than withdrawing from formal religion classes, must in effect accept a form of religious education which offends their convictions, then this would appear to elevate one form of parental choice of another, with the majority religion always dictating the outcome. This could hardly respect the rights conferred on all parents by virtue of Article 42 of the Constitution.”

The Constitutional Review Group Report in 1995 said that

“Requirements that the school must be prepared in principle to accept pupils from denominations other than its own and to have separate secular and religious instruction are not unreasonable or unfair”.

It is clear that parents who seek secular education for their children, be they religious or non-religious, have exactly the same Constitutional rights as religious parents who seek a religious education for their children. Those rights go beyond what is guaranteed by Human Rights law, and the state is obliged to respect them.

They can withdraw their children from any religious teaching, and are not obliged to accept a form of religious education which offends their convictions. However, in balancing these rights the State has absolved itself of the responsibility and given control to religious bodies whose mission is to evangelise.

In Ireland, parents do not necessarily have a choice where to send their children to school. Over half the schools at second level are under religious control. Even if there is a choice in a particular area between a Catholic school and an ETB school that does not necessarily mean that there will be a change of ethos. Many ETB schools operate under a religious ethos and the Catholic Bishops have already successfully interfered in the operation of the opt from religion in those schools.

At second level schools with a religious ethos can still discriminate in admission. This means that some minorities can face religious discrimination in access to their only local school. You simply cannot dress that up as inclusion or pluralism.

The right to not attend religious teaching (Article 44.2.4 Irish Constitution)

There is a Right under the Irish Constitution to attend any school receiving public funding and not attend religious teaching. It is worth noting that the Irish version of the Constitution takes precedence, Article 44.2.4 translates directly as not attending ‘religious teaching’ (teagasc creidimh). The Constitution envisages minorities attending schools under the control of religious bodies and not attending religious teaching. Public funding of these schools is conditional on minorities attending these schools and not attending religious teaching; “nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”.  

You can call the religious teaching whatever you want, religious education, religious instruction or religious formation, but the right to not attend applies. Section 30-2(e) of the Education Act 1998 reflects that right and the inalienable right of parents under Article 42.1 of the Constitution.  In the Education Act 1998 all curriculum subjects are referred to as ‘instruction’.

The Catholic Guidelines on the inclusion of minorities state that religion in schools with a Catholic ethos is a ‘Core Subject’.  A Core Subject means that the school expects every student to take religion and if you manage to opt out your child then no other subject is offered.

It is important to note that the Department of Education makes the NCCA Religious Education course an ‘optional subject’ at Junior and Leaving Certificate level. Schools are not obliged to make religion a core subject.

It is Catholic schools that have taken the decision to make religion a core subject. The supervision of students has become an issue because inclusion in Catholic schools means that minorities that opt out of religion are not offered another subject. Despite the Constitutional condition for funding of schools with a religious ethos and the fact that the Constitution uses the word “prejudicially”, minorities that exercise their right to not attending religious teaching are left with no other subject. The Church curtails this right in order to further their mission.

The Catholic Church is afraid that if they make religion an optional subject in schools then students will not choose it. In order to ensure that this never happens they have made religion a core subject and strictly controlled opt out arrangements, they then blamed the Department of Education on the lack of supervision.

The Guidelines on inclusion state that:-

“In cases such as this, a school should make it clear that they may not have capacity for the individual supervision of the students outside of the RE classroom due to the limitations of the Department of Education and Skill’s staff allocation to the school”

So to be clear, inclusion in Catholic schools means no other subject is offered if minority parents exercise their Constitutional right and opt their children out of religious teaching. In addition, the Guidelines put the blame for non-supervision of students who exercise their right to not attend religious teaching on the Department of Education and they call that inclusion.

Reasons given by the Bishops for making religion a core subject 

In a letter to the Minister for Education in 2018, the Episcopal Commission for Catholic Education and Formation stated that it would be unfair on students that took religion if students that were opted out were given another subject.  This letter from the Bishops was a response to the Circular Letter issued by the Department of Education in 2018 in relation to religion in all ETB schools.

ETB schools are supposed to be the alternative to denominational schools but regardless the Bishops felt it was in order for them to interfere and seek to undermine the rights of minorities in these schools. You can find that letter here.

The Bishops told the Minister for Education that it was critical that students were exposed to the religious interpretation of life and that students:-

“that take religious education should not be disadvantaged in terms of the examinable curriculum by offering those who do not take religious education additional classes in an examinable curricular subject or by offering them another examinable curricular subjects. Students must not be disadvantaged for taking religious education.”

So when there was the opportunity for minorities to exercise their right to not attend religious teaching in ETB schools and access another subject the Bishops complained that it would put those that took religion at a disadvantage, the offer was then withdrawn. The then Minister, Richard Bruton just caved into pressure.

The Bishops had an opportunity here to support the rights of minorities in schools that are supposed to be the alternative to Catholic schools but instead chose to undermine them. It is not the lack of supervision that denies minorities their rights in publicly funded Catholic schools but the refusal of the Catholic Bishops to give practical application to the right to opt out by offering another subject.


Looking at the overall picture we have a situation where on the one hand we have minority parents and their children who have a Constitutional and Human Right to opt out their children from any religious teaching in schools. That right has no practical application on the ground as students are not offered another subject and are mainly left sitting in the religion class where school policy controls what they study when opted out, they can also be discriminated against in relation to access to the school.

On the other hand parents who seek Catholic education for their children have access to Catholic schools where they are given preference in admission.  They have access to religion classes and other curriculum subjects are informed by Catholic values and ethos. Religious practice is part of the daily life of the school.

The state provides funding to ensure that the Catholic majority get a full Catholic education for their children and leaves control of the opt out arrangements for minorities in those schools to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Bishops are so afraid of minorities that they control and manipulate the opt out arrangements. These arrangements mean that opting their children out of religion in schools places an undue burden on parents with a risk of exposure of sensitive aspects of their private life and that the potential for conflict is likely to deter them from making such a request.

The reasons they give for this control is that it would be unfair to students who take religion if those who opt out on the grounds of conscience were given another subject and because they believe that it is critical that all students are exposed to the religious interpretation of life. This they claim is inclusion and pluralism.

Last year the author of the Guidelines, Dr Aiveen Mullally from the Marino Institute, is on record as stating that Catholic schools are missionary by nature.  That is exactly what these Guidelines are all about, the fear of choice, the fear that students will make a choice with their feet and choose another curriculum subject instead of religion, that can only mean that the evangelising mission of the Catholic Church will be curtailed.

How mean spirited can you get to promote that kind of policy, and then to dress it up as inclusion, while blaming the Department of Education over the lack of supervision.  These Guidelines are based on fear and control. We will be highlighting other areas of these Guidelines that undermine the Constitutional and Human Rights rights of minorities.


“Pope Francecso I” by JeffyBruno is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



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