School patronage and human rights – Atheist Ireland letter in Irish Times

The Irish Times today published this letter by Atheist Ireland calling for equality for atheists in Irish schools.

Sir, – In a democratic republic, should the State fund an essential public service in a way that satisfies the wishes of a religious majority, but breaches the human rights of atheists and minority faiths?

Human rights standards are not lofty aspirations. They are the minimum we should expect as the foundation of an ethical society.
Parents and children have a right to State-funded schools that do not evangelise, and teachers have a right to jobs in State-funded schools.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly told Ireland to establish non-denominational schools, divest religious patronage, phase out the integrated religious curriculum, and end religious discrimination against teachers.

The State should fund secular schools as the foundation of a human-rights-based education system. Secular schools would teach about religions and beliefs in an objective, critical and pluralist way, without pronouncing on the truth of any specific belief.

Alongside that, parents should have the choice to set up and fund religious schools of their own. However, if the State is funding religious schools as the foundation of the educational system, there is only the illusion of choice.

For the first time ever, the State is now arguing that it is constitutionally obliged (as distinct from permitted) to allow this religious discrimination against its own citizens to continue. We disagree with this analysis and see it as a delaying tactic to avoid addressing the issue.

The 1995 Constitutional Review Group said Article 44.2.4, which sanctions State funding of denominational schools, was also meant to protect the rights of minorities. However, over the years, those rights have been undermined.

The Louise O’Keeffe case at the European Court of Human Rights has clarified that the State is responsible for protecting the human rights of schoolchildren, even if it does not run the schools directly. This could be strengthened further if a parent took a case specifically on religious discrimination.

In the run-up to the coming election, Atheist Ireland will be seeking a commitment from all political parties to bring about religious equality in State-funded schools. If the State insists that this requires constitutional change, then we will be seeking another equality referendum. – Yours, etc,

MICHAEL NUGENT,
Chairman,
JANE DONNELLY,
Human Rights Officer,
Atheist Ireland

This letter is a follow-up to this earlier letter from Atheist Ireland, published in the Irish Times a week ago.

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