Four ways to end school discrimination against atheists and minority faiths

The Irish Times yesterday published this article by me about Atheist Ireland’s newly launched Schools Equality PACT.

David Quinn wrote this response on the Iona Institute website describing my analysis as delusional.

Please support the PACT by signing it here.

Here’s my original article:

At a recent meeting with Atheist Ireland, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education personally apologised to atheist parent Derek Walsh, whose child had been refused access to his local school because he is “a category two boy”, that is, not a Catholic.

At the same meeting, an atheist pupil and teacher described the religious discrimination they faced at school. They stayed out of the group photograph with the Taoiseach and Minister, fearing their schools might find out they had complained.

Irish schools can legally discriminate against atheists and minority faith members. They are State-funded but privately run, 90 per cent by the Catholic Church, most of the rest by other religions.

Despite the apologies to Derek Walsh, the Government now supports two Bills – on admission to schools and employment equality – that reinforce the right of State-funded schools to religiously discriminate.

Policy initiative

Atheist Ireland has launched a policy initiative called the Schools Equality Pact, which outlines the changes needed for a fair education system.

Pact is an acronym for the four areas of change – patronage, access, curriculum and teaching. Changing any one alone will not work. The change has to be made holistically.

Patronage: Children have a right to attend inclusive public schools. State-funded schools should have an inclusive public ethos. Moral education should be separate from religion. The State should not cede control to private patrons. Private ethos schools should be an optional extra, not the basis of the system. Reform should start now in the nine schools where the Minister for Education is patron.

Access: Children should have equal access to their local State-funded school whatever their religion. The current Admission to Schools Bill reinforces the right to religiously discriminate, calling it “lawful oversubscription criteria”. If schools are oversubscribed, priority should go to siblings of pupils, then local children, then a lottery.

Curriculum: Children have a right to an objective pluralist education. They should be taught the State curriculum, including about religions and beliefs in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. Faith formation should be outside the school day. Rule 68 of national schools must go. It says religious instruction is by far the most important subject, and a religious spirit must inform and vivify the whole work of the school.

Teaching: Teachers have an equal right to work in State-funded schools. Children should be taught by the best teachers, and teachers should have equal access, based on merit, to jobs in State-funded schools. The current Section 37 Bill will protect Catholic LGBT teachers, but reinforces discrimination against atheist and minority faith teachers.

All four PACT areas must be tackled together. What specifically needs to change? For patronage, the Education Act. For access, Section 7.3 (c) of the Equal Status Act. For curriculum, the Education Act and Rule 68 of National Schools. For teaching, Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act.

These fundamental changes would respect Articles 42.1, 42.3.1 and 42.3.2 of the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Louise O’Keeffe judgment and the eight warnings from the UN and Council of Europe that our schools breach human rights.


Divesting some religious schools to new private patrons will not achieve pluralism. The Oireachtas Education Committee has warned that multiple patronage and ethos can lead to segregation and inequality.

The patronage system forces parents to prioritise somehow finding the best school for their own children. But this can clash with the task of creating a fair public school system.

For example, Educate Together now wants the right to prioritise families of its own ethos, regardless of catchment area. But this would discriminate against religious families who live beside an Educate Together school. Discriminating against religious families is as wrong as discriminating against atheist families.

The State has a duty to respect equally the human rights of all children, parents and teachers. This requires a national network of public secular schools, inclusive of all, neutral between religions and atheism, and focused on children’s educational needs.

The Government claims that removing these discriminations would be unconstitutional because the State has an obligation to buttress religion. But there are other opinions about this, including from the Oireachtas Education Committee, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, and the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism.

It is the duty of the Oireachtas to balance competing constitutional rights. It cannot do this if the Government closes down the debate without publishing the legal opinion it is relying on. If it is shown to be unconstitutional to remove the discrimination, then we urgently need a Schools Equality Referendum.

Four ways to end school discrimination against atheists and minority faiths

6 thoughts on “Four ways to end school discrimination against atheists and minority faiths

  1. Ignoring Quinn’s condescension and general tone, he is right about one thing; morality is far from universally agreed. It is certainly possible for schools to teach about morality in the form of comparative study of different meta-ethical philosophies, but I would be leery of an attempt to define the ‘correct’ morality that should be instilled in students of public schools.

    Religious parents will no doubt have serious issues with a secular morality which would not be interested in the often bizarre and idiosyncratic moral precepts of the various religions. The problem will be that sometimes secular moral education would ignore religious teachings (i.e. does not teach them at all) and in some instances will be in direct opposition to religious teachings. A one size fits all moral education is likely to leave almost everyone dissatisfied.

    That ignores the truly worrying notion that is a state educating it’s citizens in morality. In my opinion, states have no business doing so. There would be a place for teaching students the rules/laws of the society they live in, but rules and laws are a universe apart from morality.

    There should be almost no moral education in schools in the form of X is moral and Y is not. That should be the duty of parents. Every parent will have the equal opportunity to mould their little angels into the next generation of morally myopic clones of themselves which is most parents unstated ambition.

    To be clear, I am not suggesting that schools go to pains to teach absolute nothing on the subject of morality. Few parents would object to foundational principles like the golden rule or basic fair play but that is about as far as it should go.

  2. The patronage system forces parents to prioritise somehow finding the best school for their own children.

    Parents will always try and get their children into the best school.
    Look at house prices and how they relate to the quality of the schools in the area, parents are willing to pay higher prices to get their children into good stat schools.

    But this can clash with the task of creating a fair public school system.

    What is fair about forcing parents to send their children to sub-standard/failing schools?
    Fair in the sense of state control over all things is not a good.

  3. Hi Seymour,

    There is no bar to private schools being suggested so not all schools have to be state run. Private schools, even private faith schools are not to be banned so far as I have seen.

    You ask:
    “What is fair about forcing parents to send their children to
    sub-standard/failing schools?”

    Assuming there are limited places in schools which are not sub-standard/failing, then it isn’t a matter of fairness. It is a brute fact that some parents will be forced to send their children to sub-standard/failing schools.

    This is not an ideal state of affairs but it is the reality and ensuring (in the short-term at least) that all schools are excellent is not within our power to achieve.
    Given that this is the state of things, why not at least remove the obvious unfairness of religious discrimination. While it is undesirable that any parents and their child should have to settle for a bad school, it is far less desirable that some demographics are disproportionately forced to do so. This is particularly unfair when the tax euros of those same parents are funding the schools just as much as the parents of the preferentially selected.

  4. Hi HH

    I was arguing against the idea of fairness existing, even if equally funded there are some bad teachers and bad parents who defend their evil sprogs (some children are disruptive in class and their parents blame this on teachers or society). Some some schools will always be worse than others.

    I suspect we’ll just end up with another form of discrimination (money, political influence, nepotism). Many schools have the concept of keeping families together so if your sister or brother is or was at the school you’ll be preferred over those without a family connection.

    Not sure why you bring tax into it, a lot of bad schools are in areas with low income families or high unemployment. They deserve good education just as much as those paying more than they receive from the state.

    Discrimination is not always a good nor is it always bad, We all discriminate every day in the choices we make.

    I would suggest that the state actually creates state schools (non-denominational), rather than coerce religiously based schools. Yes remove their state funding if they do not match the state rules (or more fairly, fund on a per child basis), but do not force them to chooses between their ethos and those of others.

    If the state can do better and win the hearts and minds through better teaching then good on them, not sure what the morality will be like with politicians setting ethics but that’s a risk in any change.

  5. Hi Seymour,

    I would agree in principle that fairness is something that generally ends up being rather elusive. However, this is not a good argument in my opinion for not attempting to institute fairness as much as we can manage.

    The only reason I mentioned tax was to distinguish between public and private schools. One of the most compelling reasons in my opinion for having unbiased state schools is that they are, ostensibly at any rate, funded by the whole population.

    The idea of the state creating schools would be economically unviable. The schools that are run by the Catholic Church(CC) are all but entirely funded by the state and as such are essentially state schools.
    If the CC wishes to entirely fund a subset of schools that have a declared Catholic ethos, then this is less of an issue. Personally, I think the idea of faith schools is abhorent but that is a seperate issue. If people want faith schools then so be it but basically I don’t want to fund them.

    It is sometimes helpful to swap out religion and consider the question in some other ideological sphere.
    Imagine if there were communist or laissez-faire capitalist schools funded by the tax-payer, or Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil schools (not that there is vast political spectrum space between those two but it should convey the idea). Most people would find these ideas pretty terrible but for reasons that I can’t quite uncover, religion is something of a blind spot.

  6. Unbiased state schools? Not sure how that is meant to come about as the state (those who run it) is biased one way or another.

    If you look across the Irish Sea, state education has been a political football for a long time. Not on religious grounds more on the ideology of the ruling parties.
    It also interesting to see that there are religious state funded schools in the UK, Catholic in Scotland and Anglican in England & Wales as well as non-denominational state funded schools and a few Mohamedan ones.

    Many parents, in England & Wales, try and get there children into Anglican schools rather than the non-denominational because they believe the schools are better run and better for their children. Parents even go to church (even if they are atheists) and get to know the vicar so they have a good reference. The school ethos matters.

    Unless they can afford to go private or their child is smart enough and they live in the catchment area of one of the remaining grammar schools or an academy school.

    I am not sure why you think the state couldn’t create non-denominational schools, The UK has a range of state funded schools (denominational, non-denominational, grammar and academy) .
    Some under local authority control, some directly funded from central government.

    If the state had smart people in it they could cherry pick the best teachers from the Catholic schools and provide a better service.

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