Atheist Ireland asks UN to defend the right to not attend religion class

Atheist Ireland has sent a Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee, which will be questioning Ireland in October under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

One issue we have raised is religious discrimination and freedom of conscience in schools.

Atheists, humanists and secularists face discrimination in seeking to ensure that their children are allowed to not attend religious instruction class, and that they are supervised outside the class or have access to another subject.

You can find our submission to the UN here.

Here is the relevant section from our submission.

8. Article 2, Article 18 — The right to not attend religious instruction classes

  • Questions: Why are there no State Guidelines on the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction and will the State give a commitment to putting in place Guidelines to support the right to not attend religious instruction?
  • Why are students who do not attend religious instruction, in accordance with their right, not offered another subject and will the State party give a commitment to ensure that students who do not attend religious instruction are offered another curriculum subject?

Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution states that:-

“Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, 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.”

The above Article of the Constitution is reflected in Section 30 -2 (e) of the Education Act 1998 which 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.”

Despite this right being in the Irish Constitution and Education Act 1998 there are no state guidelines on how the right to not attend religious instruction should be implemented on the ground in schools.

This failure by the State to issue Guidelines has meant that that right to not attend religious instruction has been undermined over the years.

Many schools make religion mandatory and if parents do manage to opt out their child no supervision is provided. In fact schools tell parents that they are not obliged to provide supervision or another subject and that it is the parents that are responsible for the supervision of their child if they opt them out of religious teaching or worship. This is clearly designed to ensure that as many students as possible don’t exercise their right to not attend religious instruction.

There are now different types of religious teaching in Irish schools at primary and second level. Some of the teaching has been designed by religious bodies / patron bodies and the State has also developed courses at primary and second level. At second level the state religion course is an exam subject. In addition the majority of second level schools integrate Catholic faith formation into the State religion course and never inform parents that they are doing this.

There has been an effort over the last few years to redefine and restrict what religious instruction means in the Constitution in order to stem the flow of students requesting an opt out. This has been done without any State Guidelines in place and has meant that students are just told that the various courses on religion are not religious instruction but religious education and therefore suitable for all religions and none and consequently the opt out does not apply.

The State does not make any of these religion courses compulsory. In theory it seems that parents can opt their children out of religion classes in all Irish schools. The reality on the ground is the opposite and this is because of the failure of the state to put in place any guidelines.
The following is from a recent case in relation to religious discrimination in a school with a Catholic ethos. The comments of the school at the WRC hearing outline their complete lack of understanding of the right to freedom of religion and belief, the rights of parents and freedom from religious discrimination.

This view is normal in Irish schools because of the influence of the Catholic church in teacher training. The school simply did not understand that singing hymns at a holy communion ceremony is the practice of religion and children from minority backgrounds should not be punished because they opt out.

From the case at the WRC (Equality Commission)

“Summary of Respondent’s Case:

The Respondent submitted that that the claim is wholly unfounded as there was an option for the Complainant to attend and participate in the school choir that was to sing at the school’s First Communion ceremony (the Ceremony). The Respondent maintained that as a Catholic School it enjoys a proud tradition of participating in religious ceremonies. It further contended that music is an integral part of this, and that the school provides the choir for the Ceremony. The Respondent also submitted that singing is part of the music curriculum, and students who play instruments are also invited to participate in the Ceremony.

It maintained that all children from 3rd to 6th classes, regardless of religion (or none), are invited and welcome to participate in, and are all encouraged to give of their time for the benefit of others, including singing in the choir for those children receiving a sacrament. In this regard the school choir traditionally provides the music for the Ceremony on an annual basis. The Ceremony always takes place on a Sunday and not during the school week.

The Respondent submitted that all children are to participate in both the practice for the Ceremony and the Ceremony itself.”

The Department of Education leaves it up to each school to organise what subjects they offer under the curriculum. There are some compulsory state curriculum subjects that schools must teach and some optional subjects.

Schools also prepare students during the school day for religious sacraments and there is also religious worship in schools. Because of the lack of supervision minority students are taken to religious ceremonies because their parents cannot remove them from the school.

Under Section 30-2(d) of the Education Act 1998 the Minister is obliged to ensure that the amount of instruction time allotted to subjects under the curriculum as determined by the Minister in each school day shall be such as to allow for such reasonable instruction time, for subjects relating to or arising from the characteristic spirit/ethos of the school.

Because of Section 30-2(d) of the Education Act 1998, the vast majority of schools at primary and second level put religion classes on their curriculum as a mandatory or a core subject.

Parents are left in a position that they must seek an opt out for their child. There are no guidelines on how to do this and many parents are not even aware that there is an opt out in schools with a religious ethos. Many schools coerce parents into permitting their child to take religion classes because they claim that it is not religious instruction but a neutral course about religion and there is no right to opt out. Schools request parents attend meetings to discuss the opt out putting parents in a difficult position where they feel their beliefs are under scrutiny by the school authorities. In Ireland schools are publicly funded but essentially private schools. All schools have a lot of autonomous power.

The State has facilitated this abuse of rights because of their failure to put in place Guidelines on the Constitutional and human right to not attend religious instruction, it absolves itself of that responsibility and delegates it to schools and patron bodies.

Atheist Ireland Legal Opinion on religious instruction

Atheist Ireland has recently obtained a Legal Opinion on the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction under Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution. The legal opinion states that the Constitutional right means that schools are obliged to supervise children outside the religious instruction class and that there is a good argument to be made that these students should have another subject.

The legal opinion also states that the question whether a course is religious instruction or not will be determined by reference to the substance of the course, not its name and, in the event of a dispute, can only be determined conclusively by a Court. It is at least probable, if not likely, that it applies to any course which through its cumulative impression has the effect of invalidating atheist perspectives through promoting theistic views. This applies whether the teaching in question relates to one religion only or more than one. If parents apprehend reasonably that the content of the course, or the manner in which it is taught, is fundamentally inconsistent with the child’s atheist views, or that the course may cause an unwanted change in the child’s atheist views then the right to not attend is engaged.

The main aim of the State religious education course under the curriculum at second level (updated 2019) is to teach children about the relevance of religion to their lives and to respect beliefs. The state claims that this course is a neutral religion course, suitable for all religions and none but it is not neutral and objective and was never meant to be.

The Legal Opinion also says that teaching Catholic instruction during the State religion syllabus, without offering a supervised opt out, represents an unlawful, systematic and stark attack on the right to not attend religious instruction in State funded schools. The majority of second level schools integrate catholic faith formation into the State religion course.

The recently enacted Section Section 62(7)(n) of the Education (Admissions to schools) Act 2018 provides that where a school is providing religious instruction the school is required, in its admissions policy, to:

“provide details of the school’s arrangements in respect of any student, where the parent of that student, or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student, has requested that the student attend the school without attending religious instruction at the school (which arrangements shall not result in a reduction in the school day in respect of the student concerned).”

If schools and Patron bodies are left to decide for themselves what they believe constitutes religious instruction under the Constitution then the opt out from religion will be undermined further. State Guidelines to define the Constitutional and human right to opt out of religion classes are needed urgently to protect the right. There is no valid reason for the State to not introduce these Guidelines.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Greenwitch September 26, 2020

    My grandson does not attend religion classes even though the school says it is a mandatory “subject”. When we as a family insisted that he was not going to attend by going to the school and taking him outside the school grounds for the duration of these classes, the school found a loophole in their rules, apparently a child who has special needs can have their resource time instead of religion! Granson does have aspergers but this “solution” does smack of using a disability to justify a discrimination!


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