The Louise O’Keeffe judgment could begin the end of state-supported religious discrimination in Irish schools

by Michael Nugent on January 31, 2014

This week’s European Court judgment in the Louise O’Keeffe case changes everything in the campaign for secular education in Ireland. The State was arguing that it was not responsible for protecting Louise O’Keeffe’s human rights while she was in school, because the State did not run the school directly.

The European Court has now told the State that it was responsible for protecting Louise O’Keeffe’s human rights while she was in school, regardless of whether it runs the schools directly. And that ruling has implications for all of the human rights that are breached by religiously-run national schools in Ireland.

How Ireland’s schools discriminate on religion

Ireland has a unique education system. The State does not run Irish schools directly. Instead it appoints patron bodies (almost all of them churches) to run the schools on the basis of their own religious ethos.

This ‘patron’s religious ethos’ rule enables religiously-run national schools, despite being funded by the State, to discriminate on the ground of religion against children of parents who are atheists or members of minority religions.

For example, they can give preference to members of their own religion in admission to the school, and they can integrate their religious ethos throughout the entire curriculum. This both prevents secular parents from opting their children out of religious faith formation, and also fails to vindicate their positive right to respect for their secular philosophical beliefs.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has told Ireland that this system breaches the human rights of secular parents and their children, and has asked Ireland to make non-denominational education widely available throughout the State.

How the State has supported religious discrimination

But the State has actively protected this discriminatory ‘patron’s religious ethos’ rule, by giving religiously-run national schools exemptions within the the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. This allows religiously-run national schools to discriminate on the ground of religion without breaking the law.

And when the State passed the European Convention on Human Rights Act in 2003, the new Act only applied to breaches of human rights by ‘organs of the state’, which did not include schools, so religiously-run national schools could still continue to discriminate without breaking that Act either.

More importantly, it meant that parents whose children were discriminated against in religiousy-run schools, and had their human rights breached under the European Convention, could not take a case on that basis because the Convention Act in Ireland only applied to discrimination by ‘organs of the state.’

How the Louise O’Keeffe judgment changes everything

The European Court has now told Ireland that the State is responsible for protecting the human rights of children while in national schools, regardless of whether or not the State directly runs the schools. And the European Court has also told Ireland that it must provide an effective remedy for people whose human rights have been breached to vindicate their rights.

Ireland cannot claim that we have an effective remedy while it excludes schools from the European Convention on Human Rights Act. If it includes schools within that Act, it will have to remove the ‘religious ethos’ exemptions from the Equality Acts. And if it doesn’t include schools within the Convention Act, then parents can go directly to the European Court and explain that they have no effective remedy in Ireland.

The issue may become even more complicated. It may be that the Irish Constitution protects the right of religiously-run national schools to behave in this way. If that is the case, then we will have to either amend the Constitution or else accept that our Constitution is not compatible with international human rights law.

How the Irish State can respond to this challenge

Atheist Ireland has been campaigning for years for a State-run secular education system in Ireland, that promotes neither religion nor atheism, and that is based on the basic human rights of all parents and children to freedom of conscience and belief, freedom from discrimination, equality before the law and the rights of the child.

The Louise O’Keeffe judgment may mark the beginning of the end of state-supported religious discrimination in Irish schools. At a minimum, as Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore has put it, it has “very serious implications for the relationship between the State and the patronage of our schools.”

The State can respond to this challenge in two ways. It can circle the wagons around the ‘religious ethos’ argument, and continue to discriminate against its own citizens until it is forced to stop, or it can lead the way to a fair and democratic society where all citizens are treated equally before the law.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kieren January 31, 2014 at 8:51 pm

How about removing state support for all religious institutions full stop? The government is there to serve the people, not peddlers of fairy stories.

2 Jonathan Maycock February 1, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Great piece Michael. Thanks for the clarity you bring to this matter.

3 joe February 4, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Hi Michael,
Is there a case for atheist/non-catholic people in Ireland to take legal action against the state for this discrimination in enrollment policy in 93% of our National primary schools?
If the State continues with this blatant discrimination of childrens human rights surely we can do something about it?

4 David February 5, 2014 at 1:06 am

Kieren no more of a fairytale than believing by faith that the Universe came into existence from nothing, on its own and to serve no purpose.

How does one account for the physical parameters of the universe (the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the mass and charge of a proton, etc.) being finely tuned for the existence of stars, planets, and life?

A Universe coming into existence out of nothing and by accident. That’s just too unbelievable and illogical.

True Biblical Christianity isn’t a religion made by Man and used and abused by Man.

“Men have forgotten God”

Regarding atheism, Solzhenitsyn declared:

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

Atheist leaders have been the worst mass murders of the 20th Century and enshrining Atheism into State Law by making illegal the practice of Faith. And this is in a century that has been the most Atheistic in Mankind’s history and yet! Mankind’s most bloodiest.

The reason for the upsurge of violence in society and loose morals and values is that secularism is rising and embraced. The Me Generation.

Isaac Newton, English mathematician and scientist, 1642-1727

“We account the scriptures of God to be the most sublime philosophy. I find more sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than in any profane history whatsoever.”

Voltaire, French infidel, died 1778

– said that within 100 years of his time, Christianity would be swept away from existence and pass into the obscurity of history.

-Yet 50 years after his death, the Geneva Bible Society used his house and printing press to produce stacks of Bibles.

All of these are quotes from Adolf Hitler:

Night of 11th-12th July, 1941:

National Socialism and religion cannot exist together…. The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity…. Let it not be said that Christianity brought man the life of the soul, for that evolution was in the natural order of things.

10th October, 1941, midday:

Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure.

5 joe February 6, 2014 at 10:42 pm

@David: “A Universe coming into existence out of nothing and by accident. That’s just too unbelievable and illogical”

So you think a God creating it IS believable and logical????

Well tell me how did God come out of nothing then? Who created God?Or did another God create him?

Just because something isn’t within our current understanding does not mean you can slap God on as the answer. You should watch this for some entertaining enlightenment.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjVLJKR6g7U

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