Minister respects the rights of religious parents while undermining the rights of nonreligious parents

The Minister for Education, Norma Foley, has just given a telling example of how the Department of Education gives privilege to religious parents over nonreligious parents in Irish schools.

As Carl O’Brien reports in the Irish Times, the Minister has stressed that parents have a right to ensure that their children can withdraw from the updated sex education course on the basis of conscience. But she has not put the obstacles in their way that the Department puts in front of nonreligious parents who want their child to not attend religious instruction.

This reflects what Fintan O’Toole recently wrote about the Enoch Burke case:

“In that context, Burke is not just some kind of freak. He is expressing in an extreme way a logic that has permeated Irish education for most of the history of the State: that religious conviction is the primary value around which all other rights must be shaped.”

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment are updating the Relationship and Sexuality course and Primary level and the Social, Personal and Health education course at second level. Here’s what Minister Foley says about religious parents who don’t want their children to attend the updated sex education course:

“I want to be clear around this: we operate in our schools a spirit of partnership with our parents, the wider section of stakeholders and partners within education. We retain within our schools parental consent at all times for parents to feel that they have freedom to withdraw their students from anything that is happening within a school environment…

“I think what is important is that our students in our schools feel that they are valued within the school system. I equally feel it is important that parents have a right to determine what they want their students to avail of, or not avail of, within the school context and indeed outside … I believe in parental consent – and at no point would I seek to undermine that at any point.”

Minister Foley is right about this. This right is guaranteed in Article 42.1 of the Constitution and reflected in Article 30.2(e) of the Education Act 1998. Article 42.1 guarantees that the state must respect the rights of parents in relation to the education of their children.

But this Article also includes Religious Education. The Supreme Court has found that in relation to Religious Education under Article 42.1 that it must be read in the context of Article 44.2.4, the right to not attend Religious Instruction.

Furthermore, the Constitutional right of parents to remove their children from any religious teaching is actually written into the text of the Constitution. Article 44.2.4 guarantees this right and puts a duty on the Oireachtas in relation to it.

Despite this, various Ministers for Education over the years including Minister Foley, and the Department, have claimed that curriculum Religious Education is suitable for our children and the right to ‘not attend’ does not apply.

They have even put this in a Circular Letter (0062/2018). When administering a Constitutional right, the Department of Education decided to redefine the right, interfere in the constitutional right of parents, and ignore the will of the Oireachtas in Section 30-2(e) of the Education Act 1998.

Circular Letter 0062/2018

“Following on the clarification in Section 2 above in respect of the Religious Education syllabuses which may form part of the normal range of subject choice that may be provided by a school, the approach outlined in Section 4 of Circular 0013/2018 of parents seeking a withdrawal from the NCCA-developed Religious Education syllabus is no longer necessary.”

Department Press Release

“ The other significant clarification is that classes following the NCCA Religious Education syllabuses cannot have any element of religious instruction or worship, which also means that opt out does not arise.”

The Minister sees no contradiction in

  • Unequivocally upholding the constitutional rights of mostly religious parents who want their children to not attend sex education teaching that is against their conscience, while
  • Actively undermining the constitutional rights of nonreligious and minority faith parents who want their children to not attend religious teaching that is against their conscience.

Can the Department of Education and the Minister not see that they must treat all parents equally with regard to respecting their conscience?


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