Education Minister responds to Atheist Ireland FOI documents; promises new guidelines on opting out of religion

by Michael Nugent on October 23, 2017

RichardBruton Atheist Ireland has written to the Minister for Education seeking an input into the new guidelines that he has committed to issuing for children opting out of religion classes in State-run ETB schools.

The Minister was responding to questions by RTE’s Emma O’Kelly about documents that Atheist Ireland obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

These documents highlight the nod-and-wink approach to the religious ethos of ETB schools, and the resulting obstacles to opting out of religion classes in those schools.

Depending on who you ask, you will be told that the ethos of these State-run schools is Catholic, Christian, inter-denominational, multi-denominational, non-denominational, or a mixture of two or more of these at the same time.

However, in Ireland, these terms seem to be capable of meaning anything, as none of the terms are defined in Irish law, and the meanings used by various Irish educational bodies do not seem to match with the commonly used meanings of the words.

Atheist Ireland has asked the Government to define these terms in primary law, so that parents and children know what type of school they are attending. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, and the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism, have also recommended this.

Opting Out of Religion Classes

Parents have a constitutional right to opt their children out of religious instruction. But these ETB schools are making it impossible in practice to exercise that right. Children have to remain in the religion classroom, are given no alternative subject, and are not allowed to study anything else, unless their parents come and sign them out of the school for the duration of the class.

This is religious discrimination, and a breach of human rights. It is an example of the many issues raised in ten different UN and Council of Europe human rights reports, telling the Irish government that Irish schools are breaching the human rights of atheist and minority faith families.

We welcome the commitment by the Minister for Education that he will not be permitting what he calls ‘these impositions’ to continue. We hope that he recognises that they represent religious discrimination and a breach of human rights. We are now seeking an input into the new guidelines that his department is working on for children opting out of religion classes.

Who Says What about School Ethos?

Who says what about the religious ethos of ETB schools? The following is the situation for schools in County Tipperary that Atheist Ireland obtained documents about under Freedom of Information:

  • The school website says they are multi-denominational. This is what parents would see if they are checking out local schools.
  • The school Religious Education policy says that they are both multi-denominational and Catholic, then outlines practices and rules that reflect a Catholic ethos.
  • The Patron body, Tipperary ETB, whose legal duty it is to set the ethos, has told its school principals that the ethos of its schools is Catholic.

Since then, based on questions from RTE:

  • The ETB at first said that the reason that the schools’ ethos is Catholic is because 99.9% of the pupils are Catholic, and that the schools told the ETB that their ethos is Catholic.
  • The ETB has now said at various times that the schools are Catholic, Christian, inter-denominational, or a mixture of these at the same time.
  • The Minister for Education says that these schools are multi-denominational. The Department of Education website says they are inter-denominational. The Government has told the Council of Europe that they are non-denominational.
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