The state should not allow Catholic bishops to segregate schoolchildren by religion

The Irish Times got documents under FOI that show that the Catholic Bishops are concerned over the ability of Catholic primary schools to keep their ethos. The reason for this concern is because publicly funded Catholic schools can no longer give preference to children from catholic families. You can find the Article by Carl O’Brien in the Irish Times  here

The Bishops are concerned that if they can’t give preference to students from Catholic backgrounds over minorities then the ethos of Catholic schools could be diminished. The state wants the Bishops to divest 400 denominational National schools to a multi denominational patron body.  The Programme for Government refers to divestment of these schools to ETB Community National Schools.

Divesting 400 schools to Community National Schools will not guarantee the Constitutional rights for children from atheist or secular families. Multi-denominational schools are just that, multi-denominational. Atheism and secularism are not denominations.

Community National schools promote all religions and their Goodness Me Goodness You course is not objective. It was developed with input from the Catholic Bishops who object to teaching religions and beliefs objectively. Under Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution, parents have a right to ensure their children do not attend any religious teaching that is against their conscience. The Community National Schools do not give practical application to this Constitutional right and nor does the vast majority of publicly funded schools.

The Constitution envisages minorities attending publicly funded denominational schools, it specifically protects minorities in these schools. Our Constitution was designed to cater for publicly funded non denominational schools with separate religious instruction/teaching. In 1995 the Constitutional Review Group stated that:-

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°.

The divestment process pits parents against each other in areas around the country where the only schools available are denominational schools. The vast majority of parents whether they are Catholic or non religious or belong to a religious minority want their children educated in the community they live in, with other children from that community. They don’t want their children segregated on the grounds of religion.

The intention behind the divestment process is to have a publicly funded Catholic school and a multi-denominational school in various areas around the country. The majority of children in Ireland come from Catholic families. The intention is that Catholic parents will send their children to the local publicly funded Catholic school and all minorities attend the local Multi-Denominational school.

Parents simply don’t want this religious segregation in their community. It is not achievable to have a Catholic school and multi-denominational school in every area of the country and many children will be left attending a Catholic school which will continue to discrminate on religious grounds. Many parents object on the grounds of conscience to the ethos of multi denominational schools and want access to secular education for our children. Claiming that this is choice for all parents has no basis in reality.

The Constitution envisages all children attending the same publicly funded National School in their area. The very purpose of Article 44.2.4 is to protect minorities in any publicly funded school.

If the State gave practical application to the Constitutional rights of minorities in all publicly funded schools, whether they are denominational or multi denominational, there would be no need to segregate children on the grounds of religion, or continue to discriminate on religious grounds, or pit parents against each other in communities.

The Constitutional Review Group Report in 1995 recognised that our education system was not administered in accordance with Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution. They stated 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’

As already noted, this proviso is capable of giving rise to a number of difficulties stemming mainly from the fact that it was designed for a system of education which was supposed to be non-denominational, but with provision for separate religious instruction. As the Review Group has already noted, the reality is otherwise. The educational system is de facto denominational in character.”

The Review Group does not favour the amendment of this part of Article 44.2.4 for the following reasons:

i) Article 44.2.4 may be thought to represent something of an exception to the general rule contained in Article 44.2.3 that the State shall not endow any religion. Accordingly, if a school under the control of a religious denomination accepts State funding, it must be prepared to accept that this aid is not given unconditionally. 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.

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 segregation of small children is not the answer to the religious discrimination in our education system. Giving practical application to the Constitutional rights of all parents in publicly funded schools is the answer. The state cannot continue to ignore that our education system is not administered in accordance with the Constitution.


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