United Nations is asking Ireland about the right to an alternative to religion class in schools

Atheist Ireland will be attending the 92nd session of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva later this month. This UN Committee will be questioning Ireland, and we have made a joint submission with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland. You can find that Submission here

One of the issues that we raised with the UN Committee, and which the UN Committee has raised with Ireland, is in relation to atheist and minority faith students getting another subject if they exercise their right to opt out of religion classes.

The UN Committee has asked the following:

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

  1. Please inform the Committee on the measures taken to ensure accessible options for children to opt out of religious classes and ensure access to appropriate alternatives to such classes, in accordance with the needs of children of minority faith or non-faith backgrounds.

There should be no need for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to raise this issue. The High Court in Ireland has already found that the Irish Constitution has developed the significance of these rights and in addition has imposed obligations on the State in relation to them (Pages 37, 38 High Court 1996 – Campaign to Separate Church and State v Minister for Education)

Not only do our children not get another subject if we exercise our Constitutional and human rights, but they are not even supervised outside religion classes.

Under Article 44.2.4 of our Constitution students have a right to not attend religious instruction. That right is given no practical application on the ground, and the vast majority of students are left sitting in the religion class.

Article 44.2.4 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.

Sitting in the religion class does not incur state aid and has no relevance to an Article on state aid to schools. Not attending religious instruction does incur state aid, and that is why it is in a Constitutional Article on state aid to schools. The state aid to schools is conditional on this right being given practical application on the ground. This is the duty of the Oireachtas, as only the Oireachtas can make legislation.

The UN is raising the issue of the rights of minorities in our education system, in circumstances where when our Constitution protects these rights and the state ignores them.

The reason why they are given no practical application on the ground is because our education system is administered by the Department of Education and they hand over the application of this right to mainly private religious bodies. Those private bodies ignore our rights but still accept state aid.

The Oireachtas cannot continue to ignore the fact that not attending religious instruction is a condition of state aid. This wasn’t written into our Constitution for nothing.


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