The Irish Times today published this letter by Atheist Ireland calling for equality for atheists in Irish schools.
Sir, – Ireland has long had a political “nod and wink” culture of pretending that certain laws don’t mean what they say. We must overcome this if we are to develop a school system that respects equally the human rights of all children, parents and teachers.
Amy Mulvihill of Educate Together (July 31st) highlights that Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools states that “of all parts of a school curriculum, Religious Instruction is by far the most important” and that “a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school”.
But Educate Together schools are also legally obliged to implement Rule 68. It applies to all national schools, not merely those with a Catholic patron body. And it says that “a religious spirit”, not “the prescribed ethos”, should permeate the entire school day in all schools.
There are four ways in which the Irish education system violates the human rights of atheists and religious minorities.
The first is religious discrimination in access to schools (Section 7.3(c) of the Equal Status Act).
The current Admissions to Schools Bill claims to address this, but it retains the right of schools to discriminate on the ground of religion, using the euphemism “lawful oversubscription criteria”.
The second is the integrated religious curriculum (Section 15.2(b) of the Education Act, Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, and the Primary School Curriculum).
This is even worse than the access problem as, even if you get access, your child can still be evangelised against your wishes.
The third is religious discrimination in employment (Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act).
The current Bacik Bill will address this for LGBT teachers, but it retains the right of schools to discriminate against teachers who are atheist or the wrong religion.
The fourth is the patron system itself, through which the State cedes control of our schools to private bodies which the State then funds to discriminate against its own citizens. Even the Oireachtas Education Committee has found that the patron system leads to segregation and inequality in schools.
In recent years, pressure from Atheist Ireland and others to reverse these human rights violations has increased. In response, the State is now claiming, for the first time, that it is constitutionally obliged to allow religious schools, even when funded by the State, to discriminate against children, parents and teachers.
While the State accepts that it is bound by UN human rights treaties, it insists that it is not bound by the recommendations of the UN bodies that oversee those treaties. And it has negotiated an exemption from the EU employment equality directive, specifically to protect religious discrimination in schools.
Atheist Ireland will continue to lobby, both in Ireland and at the UN, for a secular State education system that respects everybody equally, in which the curriculum is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralist manner. It now seems that this may need another referendum. Yes to equality for atheists. – Yours, etc,
Human Rights Officer,