This week Jane Donnelly and I met with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to discuss our concerns about the proposed Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics course for Primary Schools.
Given the legal framework in Ireland, and the fact that we have direct experience of a Religious Education course at second level, we requested that our right to exempt our children from this course is recognised and guaranteed.
We cannot see how this course will promote respect for our human rights, given the fact that the NCCA have no power to ensure that schools deliver this course in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner and in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles and human rights law.
We also discussed the work being done by the NCCA on developing this course, and the following issues which are contained in the document that we gave to the NCCA at the meeting.
Respecting the philosophical convictions of atheist/secular families in the education system
- 1. Introduction
- 1.1 Religious education course at second level
- 1.2 No respect for our philosophical convictions
- 2. Constitutional and Human Rights standards
- 2.1 The right to respect for our philosophical convictions
- 2.2 The right to private and family life
- 3. The Primary School Curriculum – Disrespecting the human rights of atheist/secular families
- 4. The Toledo Guiding Principles
- 5. Conclusion
Thank you for the opportunity to give our views on the proposed ERB and Ethics course for Primary Schools in Ireland.
Atheist Ireland supports the teaching about religions and beliefs in schools. This type of course should be inclusive of all children, regardless of their parents’ religious or philosophical convictions.
We welcome the introduction of this new course but are unclear how it will respect our philosophical convictions given the legal framework in Ireland. As far as we are aware this government has no intention of amending the Education Act 1998 or the Primary School Curriculum and removing Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools before this new course is introduced in schools.
There is nothing legally in place that ensures that this new course will be in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles and legally oblige schools to deliver it in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner and in accordance with human rights principles.
The Education Act 1998, the Primary School Curriculum and Rule 68 of the Rules for National schools guarantees that this new course (ERB and ethics) will not be objective and will seek to promote the moral and spiritual development of our children through religion and belief in a god.
1.1 Religious education course at second level
Some of our concern is based on our experience on the ground of the Religious Education course at second level which disrespects our philosophical convictions and breaches our human rights, it is compulsory in many schools. This course copper fastened the religious discrimination that we suffer in the education system.
When we complained about this course to the NCCA, we were informed that the course does respect us, and that the NCCA has no control over how the course is delivered. Obviously nothing has changed and the NCCA still do not respect our philosophical convictions and neither have they any control over how the proposed new course will be delivered.
One fundamental issue with the Religious Education Course at second level is that schools combine it with the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic students; it is then presented to all parents as suitable for their children.
From our point of view the NCCA must have known that this would happen on the ground but still went ahead with this course. Schools were unlikely to put in place another course on Religion in a busy schedule.
The result is that many schools make this course compulsory and never inform parents that it is combined with the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students. We get more complaints from parents regarding this course than any other area in the education system.
1.2 No respect for our philosophical convictions
The UN Human Rights Committee and various other UN and Council of Europe Committees recognise that atheist and secular families are denied their human rights in the Irish education system. The non-religious are now the second largest group in society after Roman Catholics but still do not enjoy respect for their philosophical convictions.
We really have no alternative but to engage with this process by seeking full exemption from this proposed course at Primary level as it cannot respect our philosophical convictions given the legal framework in Ireland at present.
We would also like to point out that Section 7 3 (b) of the Equal Status Act 2000 obliges schools not to discriminate in “the access of a student to any course, facility or benefit provided by the establishment”.
Atheist/Secular families cannot access a state course, as to do so will mean that they must endure the disrespect that the state has for their philosophical convictions, as the state seeks to promote the moral and spiritual development of their children through religious education.
2. Constitutional and Human Rights standards
Article 42.1 of the Constitution obliges the State to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide for the religious and moral education of their children. The non-religious are now the second largest group in society after Roman Catholics but despite this the State ignores their inalienable right to respect for their philosophical convictions.
Atheist and Secular families are denied this inalienable right to respect for their philosophical convictions under Article 42.1 of the Irish Constitution as our education system is not structured to recognise that atheism and secularism are philosophical convictions, worthy of respect in a pluralist democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental right of the child to education.
It is clear from the Louise O’Keeffe case at the European Court that the State cannot absolve itself of the responsibility to protect the rights guaranteed under the European Convention and delegate this responsibility to private bodies and individuals.
The European Court stated in the Louise O’Keeffe case that:
“150. It is indeed the case, as emphasised by the applicant, that a State cannot absolve itself from its obligations to minors in primary schools by delegating those duties to private bodies or individuals (Costello-Roberts v. the United Kingdom, cited above, § 27. See also, mutatis mutandis, Storck v. Germany, no. 61603/00, § 103, ECHR 2005V)”.
2.1 The right to respect for our philosophical convictions
The European Court has found the Secularism is a philosophical convictions protected by Article 9 of the Convention. Atheist/secular parents have exactly the same rights as religious parents.
The European Court in the Lautsi v Italy case in 2011 stated that:
“58. Secondly, the Court emphasises that the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the “level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” required for them to be considered “convictions” within the meaning of Articles 9 of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1 (see Campbell and Cosans v.the United Kingdom, 25 February 1982, § 36, Series A no. 48). More precisely, their views must be regarded as “philosophical convictions”, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, given that they are worthy of “respect ‘in a democratic society’”, are not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental right of the child to education.”
The European Court and the United Nations both recognise the positive obligation on the State to respect the right of atheist and secular parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions. This right to respect is an absolute right, not to be balanced against the rights of others, or one that can be gradually achieved.
Our education system is structured to regard this right as a negative right (an opt out right) and fails to recognise that there is also a positive obligation to respect the right of atheist and secular parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.
This right to respect cannot be overridden by the alleged necessity of striking a balance between the conflicting views involved, but that is exactly what is happening in our education system. Our education system is structured in a manner which means the practical application of our Constitutional and human rights are ignored.
The European Court has defined in the Campbell & Cosans v the UK case in 1982 what it means to respect parents’ convictions:
“37. Whilst the adoption of the policy referred to clearly foreshadows a move in the direction of the position taken by the applicants, it does not amount to ‘respect’ for their convictions. As is confirmed by the fact that, in the course of the drafting of Article 2 (P1-2), the words ‘have regard to’ were replaced by the word ‘respect’ (see documents CDH (67) 2, p. 163) the latter word means more than ‘acknowledge’ or ‘taken into account’; in addition to a primarily negative undertaking, it implies some positive obligation on the part of the State (see mutatis mutandis, the Marckx judgment of 13 June 1979, series A no. 31, p. 15, par. 31). This being so, the duty to respect parental convictions in this sphere cannot be overridden by the alleged necessity of striking a balance between the conflicting views involved, nor is the Government’s policy to move gradually towards the abolition of corporal punished in itself sufficient to comply with this duty.”
41. The right to education guaranteed by the first sentence of Article 2 (P1-2) by its very nature calls for regulation by the State, but such regulation must never injure the substance of the right nor conflict with other rights enshrined in the Convention or its Protocols (see the judgment of 23 July 1968 on the merits of the “Belgian Linguistic” case, Series A no. 6, p. 32, par. 5).
“The suspension of Jeffrey Cosans – which remained in force for nearly a whole school year – was motivated by his and his parents’ refusal to accept that he receive or be liable to corporal chastisement (see paragraphs 10-11 above). His return to school could have been secured only if his parents had acted contrary to their convictions, convictions which the United Kingdom is obliged to respect under the second sentence of Article 2 (P1-2) (see paragraphs 35-36 above). A condition of access to an educational establishment that conflicts in this way with another right enshrined in Protocol No. 1 cannot be described as reasonable and in any event falls outside the State’s power of regulation under Article 2 (P1-2). There has accordingly also been, as regards Jeffrey Cosans, breach of the first sentence of that Article (P1-2).”
The European Court has found that parents have a right to opt their children out of religion classes if they believe it will cause their children to face a conflict of allegiance between the school and their religious or philosophical convictions (ECHR Mansur & Others v Turkey, Sept 2014). Schools will not be obliged by law to deliver this new course in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner which is a General Principle of the European Court of human rights. At second level atheist/secular parents complain about the Religious Education text book that they are required to get. It is littered with quotes from the bible and it is clearly not suitable for our children.
In Mansur & Others v Turkey the European Court stated that:
“The fact that the curriculum of the religion and ethics classes gave greater prominence to Islam as practised and interpreted by the majority of the Turkish population than to other minority interpretations of Islam could not in itself be viewed as a departure from the principles of pluralism and objectivity which would amount to indoctrination. However, bearing in mind the particular features of the Alevi faith as compared with the Sunni understanding of Islam, the applicants could legitimately have considered that the approach adopted in the classes was likely to cause their children to face a conflict of allegiance between the school and their own values.
The Court failed to see how such a conflict could be avoided in the absence of an appropriate exemption procedure. The discrepancies complained of by the applicants between the approach adopted in the curriculum and the particular features of their faith as compared with the Sunni understanding of Islam were so great that they would scarcely be alleviated by the mere inclusion in textbooks of information about Alevi beliefs and practice.”
According to the rationale of providing religious education in the curriculum at second level, it offers opportunities to develop an informed and critical understanding of the Christian tradition in its historical origins and cultural and social expressions. No such thoroughness is applied to any other religions or philosophical convictions. In fact atheists are referred to in a section called Challenges to faith alongside materialism and fundamentalism. It is really difficult for us to understand how the NCCA can still claim that they respect our philosophical convictions and our human rights.
The European Court in the Folgero case stated that:
91. It is further to be noted that the Christian object clause was compounded by a clear preponderance of Christianity in the composition of the subject.
92. In this regard, reference should be made to the stated aim in section 2-4(1)(i) of the Education Act 1998 to “transmit thorough knowledge of the Bible and Christianity in the form of cultural heritage and the Evangelical Lutheran Faith” (emphasis added). In contrast, no requirement of thoroughness applied to the knowledge to be transmitted about other religions and philosophies (see paragraph 23 above).
We have already been informed by the NCCA in writing that they have no control over how any course is delivered and consequently we really have no alternative but to seek exemptions.
The European Court is very clear about delivering these types of courses in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, it is a General Principle.
They stated in the Folgero case that:-
(h) The second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 implies on the other hand that the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. That is the limit that must not be exceeded .
In a case at the UN Human Rights Committee called Leirvag v Norway the same human rights principles applied in their decision.
“14.6 The Commitee considers, however, that even in the abstract, the present system of partial exemption imposes a considerable burden on persons in the position of the authors, insofar as it requires them to acquaint themselves with those aspects of the subject which are clearly of a religious nature, as well as with other aspects, with a view to determining which of the other aspects they may feel a need to seek – and justify – exemption from. Nor would it be implausible to expect that such persons would be deterred from exercising that right, insofar as a regime of partial exemption could create problems for children which are different from those that may be present in a total exemption scheme. Indeed as the experience of the authors demonstrates, the system of exemptions does not currently protect the liberty of parents to ensure that the religious and moral education of their children is in conformity with their own convictions. In this respect, the Committee notes that the CKREE subject combines education on religious knowledge with practising a particular religious belief, e.g. learning by heart of prayers, singing religious hymns or attendance at religious services (para 9.18). While it is true that in these cases parents may claim exemption from these activities by ticking a box on a form, the CKREE scheme does not ensure that education of religious knowledge and religious practice are separated in a way that makes the exemption scheme practicable.
14.7 In the Committee’s view, the difficulties encountered by the authors, in particular the fact that Maria Jansen and Pia Suzanne Orning had to recite religious texts in the context of a Christmas celebration although they were enrolled in the exemption scheme, as well as the loyalty conflicts experienced by the children, amply illustrate these difficulties. Furthermore, the requirement to give reasons for exempting children from lessons focusing on imparting religious knowledge and the absence of clear indications as to what kind of reasons would be accepted creates a further obstacle for parents who seek to ensure that their children are not exposed to certain religious ideas. In the Committee’s view, the present framework of CKREE, including the current regime of exemptions, as it has been implemented in respect of the authors, constitutes a violation of article 18, paragraph 4, of the Covenant in their respect.”
The NCCA will not take any care regarding the delivery of the course because it has no legal power to do so and because it supports promoting the spiritual and moral development of children and bringing them to a knowledge of god.
The Irish Human Rights Commission in their Report, Religion and Education; A Human Rights Perspective recommended that the Education Act 1998 be amended to ensure that the curriculum was delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. That Recommendation has been ignored.
2.2 The right to private and family life
Parents have a human right not to be required to reveal their religious or philosophical convictions and not to be compelled to assume a stance from which it may be inferred whether or not they have such beliefs (Article 8). Given what happened at second level with the Religious Education course we can only assume that the NCCA do not understand this human right.
Any course that puts parents in the position that they must reveal directly or indirectly their religious or philosophical convictions falls foul of the negative aspect of Article 9 (freedom of conscience) of the European Convention and Article 8 (the right to private and family life).
In Grzelak v Poland 2010 the European Court stated that:
87. The Court reiterates that freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs comprises also a negative aspect, namely the right of individuals not to be required to reveal their faith or religious beliefs and not to be compelled to assume a stance from which it may be inferred whether or not they have such beliefs (see, Alexandridis v. Greece, no. 19516/06, § 38, ECHR 2008…, and, mutatis mutandis, Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, no. 1448/04, § 76 in fine, ECHR 2007XI). The Court has accepted, as noted above, that Article 9 is also a precious asset for non-believers like the third applicant in the present case. It necessarily follows that there will be an interference with the negative aspect of this provision when the State brings about a situation in which individuals are obliged – directly or indirectly – to reveal that they are non-believers. This is all the more important when such obligation occurs in the context of the provision of an important public service such as education.
If this course takes place during the time allotted to religious education/ethos in schools then our right to seek exemptions must be recognised and guaranteed as otherwise we will suffer the same consequences as we do at second level. The European Court has said that information about personal religious and philosophical conviction concerns some of the most intimate aspects of private life and that imposing an obligation on parents to disclose detailed information to the school authorities about their religious and philosophical convictions may constitute a violation of Article 8 of the Convention and possibly also of Article 9.
If the two courses are combined then atheist/secular parents must seek an exemption from the parts of the course that are not objective, critical and pluralistic. Parents are then put in a position that they must reveal their philosophical convictions in order to exempt their children from particular aspects of the course. Identifying and segregating children in the class on the basis that parents are belong to theist or non theist groups puts us in the same position and we would be seeking an overall exemption in order to protect our right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention.
This issue was paramount in the decision of the European Court in the Folgero v Norway case in 2006. The Court stated that:-
“97. In this connection the Court notes that the operation of the partial-exemption arrangement presupposed, firstly, that the parents concerned be adequately informed of the details of the lesson plans to be able to identify and notify to the school in advance those parts of the teaching that would be incompatible with their own convictions and beliefs. This could be a challenging task not only for parents but also for teachers, who often had difficulty in working out and dispatching to the parents a detailed lesson plan in advance (see paragraph 29 above). In the absence of any formal obligation for teachers to follow textbooks (see point 10 in the citation at paragraph 48 above), it must have been difficult for parents to keep themselves constantly informed about the contents of the teaching that went on in the classroom and to single out incompatible parts. To do so must have been even more difficult where it was the general Christian leaning of the KRL subject that posed a problem.
98. Secondly, pursuant to Circular F-03-98, save in instances where the exemption request concerned clearly religious activities – where no grounds had to be given – it was a condition for obtaining partial exemption that the parents give reasonable grounds for their request (see the citation from the Circular in the Supreme Court’s reasoning at paragraph 42 above). The Court observes that information about personal religious and philosophical conviction concerns some of the most intimate aspects of private life. It agrees with the Supreme Court that imposing an obligation on parents to disclose detailed information to the school authorities about their religious and philosophical convictions may constitute a violation of Article 8 of the Convention and possibly also of Article 9 (ibid.). In the present instance, it is important to note that there was no obligation as such for parents to disclose their own convictions. Moreover, Circular F-03-98 drew the school authorities’ attention to the need to take duly into account the parents’ right to respect for their private life (ibid.). The Court finds, nonetheless, that inherent in the condition to give reasonable grounds was a risk that the parents might feel compelled to disclose to the school authorities intimate aspects of their own religious and philosophical convictions. The risk of such compulsion was all the more present in view of the difficulties highlighted above for parents in identifying the parts of the teaching that they considered as amounting to the practice of another religion or adherence to another philosophy of life. In addition, the question whether a request for exemption was reasonable was apparently a potential breeding ground for conflict, a situation that parents might prefer simply to avoid by not expressing a wish for exemption.”
“100. In the light of the above, the Court finds that the system of partial exemption was capable of subjecting the parents concerned to a heavy burden with a risk of undue exposure of their private life and that the potential for conflict was likely to deter them from making such requests. In certain instances, notably with regard to activities of a religious character, the scope of a partial exemption might even be substantially reduced by differentiated teaching. This could hardly be considered consonant with the parents’ right to respect for their convictions for the purposes of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, as interpreted in the light of Articles 8 and 9 of the Convention. In this respect, it must be remembered that the Convention is designed to “guarantee not rights that are theoretical or illusory but rights that are practical and effective” (see Öcalan v. Turkey [GC], no. 46221/99, § 135, ECHR 2005IV).”
3. The Primary School Curriculum – Disrespecting the human rights of atheist/secular families
Article 42.1 of the Irish Constitution speaks of the inalienable right to respect for parents convictions and this is compatible with the findings of the European Court. The absolute nature of the right to respect for parents’ convictions and the fact that it cannot be overridden by the alleged necessity of striking a balance between the conflicting views involved is not recognised by the Irish state. The State cannot absolve itself of the positive obligation to respect these inalienable rights.
In the Primary School Curriculum, Rule 68 and the State Religious Education course at second level the state actively disrespects the philosophical convictions of atheist/secular families as it promotes the moral and spiritual development of our children through religious education.
This would be the same as promoting the moral and spiritual development of the children of Catholic families through atheist education. This policy undermines the rights of parents under Article 42.1 of the Constitution.
This was an issue in the Folgero case at the European Court as Norway had what is called ‘a Christian object clause’. In Ireland we have the Education Act 1998, Rule 68 of the Rules for National schools and the Primary School curriculum. The European Court raised this issue in the Folgero case and stated that:
“95. Thus, when seen together with the Christian object clause, the description of the contents and the aims of the KRL subject set out in section 2-4 of the Education Act 1998 and other texts forming part of the legislative framework suggest that not only quantitative but even qualitative differences applied to the teaching of Christianity as compared to that of other religions and philosophies. In view of these disparities, it is not clear how the further aim, set out in item (v), to “promote understanding, respect and the ability to maintain a dialogue between people with different perceptions of beliefs and convictions” could be properly attained. In the Court’s view, the differences were such that they could hardly be sufficiently attenuated by the requirement in section 2-4 that the teaching follow a uniform pedagogical approach in respect of the different religions and philosophies (see paragraph 23 above).
There is a duty of the State to remain neutral with regard to religion and beliefs but it is clear that our education system has failed to take on board this essential democratic principle.
In Leyla Sahin v Turkey, 10th November 2005 the European Court stated that:
“107. The Court has frequently emphasised the State’s role as the neutral and impartial organiser of the exercise of various religions, faiths and beliefs, and stated that this role is conducive to public order, religious harmony and tolerance in a democratic society.”
All recognised schools in Ireland are obliged by the Education Act 1998 to operate in accordance with legislation, policy and curriculum as determined by the Minister for Education & Skills, Section 9 – (b) Education Act 1998).
The legislation, policy and curriculum oblige schools to promote the spiritual development of students (Section 9 – (d) Education Act 1998), while having regard to the Characteristic spirit
(ethos) of the school. The vast majority of schools at both primary and second level operate with a specific religious ethos.
One of the key areas of the Primary School Curriculum is to promote the spiritual dimension of life. The concept of spirituality is not defined in the Education Act 1998 and in the Primary School Curriculum it is assumed that it based on a transcendent element within human experience. Spirituality is linked to religious education and developing spiritual and moral values and a knowledge of god.
The Primary School Curriculum states that:
“The spiritual dimension of life expresses itself in a search for truth and in the quest for a transcendent element within human experience. The importance that the curriculum attributes to the child’s spiritual development is expressed through the breadth of learning experiences the curriculum offers, through the inclusion of religious education as one of the areas of the curriculum, and through the child’s engagement with the aesthetic and affective domains of learning.” (Introduction Primary School Curriculum, page 27)
“The spiritual dimension is a fundamental aspect of individual experience, and its religious and cultural expression is an inextricable part of Irish culture and history. Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.” (Primary School Curriculum Page 58)
Spirituality is not defined in the Education Act but during the debate on the Education Act 1998 it was recognised that one did not need to be religious to be spiritual and that atheists could be spiritual.
Schools are obliged under Section 9 (d) of the Education Act 1998 to:-
“promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school”.
In the debate on the Education Act 1998 in the Seanad on Section 15 (which also refers to the word ‘spiritual’), a question arose as to whether the word ‘spiritual’ applied to atheists. In reality most atheists would not regard themselves as being spiritual, but regardless a discussion ensued based around romantic poets, and it was agreed that this section of the Education Act applied to atheists as well and that spiritual values did not mean religious values.
The then Minister for Education Michael Martin stated that:
“Senator Ryan asked me to explain the difference between spiritual and religious. I believe one can be spiritual without being religious. I would argue that a person could have strong spiritual values and not be a member of an organised religion or be an atheist. A person could also be religious and not spiritual. Many religious people are also very spiritual.”
Notwithstanding the above debate and clarification regarding the word spiritual, the Primary Schools Curriculum sees spirituality expressed only through religious education. It is difficult for us to understand how anybody could believe that atheists believe in a higher power and that their children should be brought to a knowledge of god. It goes on to state that:-
“Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God”.
This directly disrespects the inalienable right to respect of atheist and secular parents for their philosophical convictions under Article 42.1 of the Constitution and Article II of Protocol 1 of the European Convention.
4. The Toledo Guiding Principles
The Toledo Guiding Principles on teaching ABOUT religions and beliefs in public schools were issued by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2007.
The purpose of the Guidelines is to promote tolerance and mutual respect, equality and non-discrimination and access to justice. They respect parents’ religious and philosophical convictions and enable all to ‘opt in’ not ‘opt out’ to an education in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.
Out of the fifty six participating states in the OSCE only one state (the Holy See) objected to these human rights based principles. Given that our legal framework permits the vast majority of schools in Ireland to integrate their religious ethos into the state curriculum then it seems obvious that the proposed course cannot be in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles.
The reason the Vatican gave for rejecting these human rights based Guiding Principles is as follows:-
“The Document contains a reductive view of Religion and a conception of the secular nature of States and their neutrality that obfuscates the positive role of religion, its specific nature and contribution to society. In doing so, the document contradicts what has always marked the OSCE’s understanding of Religion.”
Here are some relevant extracts from the Toledo Principles:
.. educates about religions and beliefs without promoting or denigrating any of them… it informs students about various religions and beliefs, it does not seek to conform or convert students to any particular religion or belief. (p.21)
…curricula being used in public schools that touch upon teaching about religions and beliefs promote respect for freedom-of-religion rights and whether they
[curricula] are impartial, balanced, inclusive, age appropriate, free of bias. (p.15)
…establish advisory bodies at different levels that take an inclusive approach to involving different stakeholders in the preparation and implementation of curricula
and in the training of teachers. (p.16)
Teaching about religions and beliefs must be provided in ways that are fair, accurate and based on sound scholarship. (p.16)
The starting point of the Toledo Guiding Principles is the understanding that teaching
about religions and beliefs is not devotionally and denominationally oriented. It strives for student awareness of religions and beliefs, but does not press for student acceptance of any of them; it sponsors study about religions and beliefs, not their practice; it may expose students to a diversity of religious and non-religious views, but does not impose any particular view; it educates about religions and beliefs without promoting or denigrating any of them; it informs students about various religions and beliefs, it does not seek to conform or convert students to any particular religion or belief. Study about religions and beliefs should be based on sound scholarship, which is an essential precondition for giving students both a fair and deeper understanding of the various faith traditions. (p. 21)
…take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination against individuals or communities on the grounds of religion. (p.29)
No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his [their] freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his [their] choice. (p.29)
…a human rights framework is the best guarantee for the development of a fair and balanced approach to teaching about religions and beliefs.(p.54)
Once the decision is made that an opt-out is the adequate way to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief for a particular pupil, consideration needs to be given as to how the opt-out should be structured. An approach needs to be found that does not stigmatize or discriminate against the student. (p.73)
Role of the State
Regardless of the particular model of church-state relations within a country, the State has important responsibilities in the field of education and, in exercising these, it has a duty to act in a neutral and impartial fashion where matters of religion and belief are concerned. (p.33)
The State has the responsibility […] to take steps to protect the enjoyment of the freedom of religion and belief by all individuals and groups. (p.30)
Nor is a form of belief excluded from the scope of protection because it is not “religious” in nature: the protection offered embraces both religious and nonreligious systems of belief in equal measure, without according a priority to any. (p.30)
Furthermore, while it is important to ensure that representatives of religious communities are allowed to give input and advice, this should not be taken to the extreme of giving them too much decision-making power at the cost of abdicating state responsibility. The European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that excessive involvement of religious authorities from one community in decisions that affect the rights of those belonging to another community may itself amount to a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief. (p.65)
The status of teachers in classrooms gives them the potential to influence students
disproportionately in discussions about issues of a personal nature, such as religion or belief. While recognizing that the expression of the personal beliefs of the teacher can promote understanding and encourage reflection, teacher education should include strategies to ensure that educators’ personal, religious or nonreligious commitments do not create bias in their teaching about different religions and philosophies. (p.57)
Given the legal framework in Ireland and the fact that we have direct experience of a Religious Education course at second level we request that our right to exempt our children from this course is recognised and guaranteed. We cannot see how this course will promote respect for our human rights given the fact that the NCCA have no power to ensure that schools deliver this course in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner and in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles and human rights law.