Major new report on religious discrimination in State Religious Education course

AI Report Court and Smith

Atheist Ireland today launched a major report on how the State Religious 
Education course at second level breaches human
 and Constitutional rights. It is one of our most comprehensive projects to date.

You can download the full report as a (large 92-page) PDF file here.


In recent months, Atheist Ireland has researched hundreds of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) about how it devised the State Religious Education course. This research supports the case that Atheist Ireland has been making for years:

  • That the State second level Religious Education course disrespects the philosophical convictions of atheist, secular and minority faith families and that, contrary to Article 42.1 of the Constitution, it discriminates against these families.
  • That State-funded Irish schools are illegally forcing children of atheist, secular and minority faith families, into Religious Instruction and Catholic faith formation, contrary to Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution, and several human rights treaties that Ireland has signed up to.

In theory, Secondary schools teach two separate religion courses:

  • The school’s own Religious Education and Faith Formation class, which is supposed to be taught separately to the State Curriculum; and
  • The State Curriculum course in Religious Education, which is supposed to be taught as an optional examination subject as part of the State Curriculum.

In practice, what happens in most secondary schools is this:

  • The State Course, which is supposed to be suitable for students of all faiths and none, already breaches the constitutional and human rights of atheist, secular and minority faith students, for reasons which we outline in this report.
  • Most schools then add to this problem, by teaching the optional State Course in accordance with the Catholic Church’s Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students.
  • Most schools then merge the two courses together, teaching the optional State Course along with the school’s formal faith formation class, and they tell parents that the combined course is a compulsory core subject.

This issue came to public attention last November, when Atheist Ireland put parent Paul Drury in touch with RTE, after Castletroy Community College refused to permit his daughter to opt out from their combined religion class. The school eventually allowed her to opt out, but insisted that she stay in the classroom while religion was taught. They did not offer her another subject, which she should be entitled to as she can legally opt out of the patron’s religious course, and the State course is optional so she should have been able to pick another subject.


Based on this research, Atheist Ireland is making five recommendations.

1. The Minister for Education should immediately issue a Circular Letter informing all schools at second level that:

  • the State Religious Education Course is not compulsory and students can choose another subject, and
  • schools should actively inform students and parents about this.

2. The Minister for Education is proposing a new Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. This Bill should be amended to ensure that:

  • in setting out the characteristic spirit and general objectives of a school,
  • outside of the specific context of faith formation and religious instruction classes where exemptions apply,
  • any information with regard to religion and belief should be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner that avoids indoctrination.

3. The NCCA is scheduled to review the State Religious Education Course at second level later this year. The Minister for Education should instruct that:

  • the NCCA review of this course should be a fundamental review, taking into account the contents of this report,
  • the members of the review committee should be impartial and free from bias towards any religion or belief,
  • the review committee should consult on the basis of equality with all interested religions and beliefs,
  • the review should take into account both the content of the curriculum and its practical delivery on the ground, and
  • the revised course after the review should have to meet at least the same constitutional and human rights standards as are included in the NCCA’s plans for the proposed new course on Religion, Beliefs and Ethics course at primary level.

4. The Minister for Education should ensure that students from minority backgrounds can have access to teacher training, and have access to the teaching profession, without having to teach Catholic Religious Instruction and Formation.

5. The Minister for Education should urgently remove all religious discrimination in the education system:

  • consistently with the equal constitutional and human rights of people of all religions and beliefs,
  • as recommended by nine sets of United Nations and Council of Europe human rights committees, and
  • in the four areas covered by the Atheist Ireland Schools Equality PACT — Patronage, Access, Curriculum, Teaching.

You can download the full report as a (large 92-page) PDF file here.

Sample extracts from the Report

RE Report merging

AI Report 1-2

AI Report 3-4

AI Report 4-5

AI Report 6

AI Report 7

You can download the full report as a (large 92-page) PDF file here.

How the Catholic Church Controls the State Course

The Catholic Church controls the State Religious Education course at second level in four ways.

1. The Catholic Church has had undue influence in the formation of the course by the NCCA, while other religious and non religious perspectives were marginalised. This report by Atheist Ireland shows how that happened.

2. The Catholic Church controls how the State Religious Education course is delivered in nearly all schools and colleges, as it is combined with Catholic Religious Instruction and faith formation.

3. The Catholic Church controls the hiring of teachers, as only those that are trained to teach Catholic Religious Instruction can be hired if Catholic Religious Instruction and the State Religious Education course are combined. This applies to all VEC/ETB schools and colleges as well as second level schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church. For example, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in 2014 that:

“Under the terms of circular-1979 the VEC schools were able to provide permanent posts for qualified RE teachers and were asked to provide two hours of religious education per week to each class. While the structures have changed and we now have ETBs (Education Training Boards) rather than VECs, the same basic principles still apply and, where they are implemented, parents can send their children to ETB schools with confidence that the school will play its part in the faith education of their children. Once again, it is important that parents inform themselves as to what arrangements are actually in place for Religious Education in whatever school they choose for their children.”

4. In another recent FoI response that Atheist Ireland received, we discovered that the Archbishop of Dublin sanctions all staff hired in the Mater Dei Institute. The patron of the Mater Dei Institute is the Archbishop of Dublin. This is where some of the Second Level Religious Education teachers are trained, and it is a requirement of Circular Letter 7/79 that VEC/ETB schools and colleges hire religion teachers trained in the Mater Dei Institute. The Mater Dei Institute is a college of DCU yet, according to this FoI response, all staff must be sanctioned by the Archbishop.

This effectively gives the Catholic Church complete control over the State Religious Education course at second level. It also gives the Church control over the Religious Education of all minorities (including atheist and secular families). Furthermore, the control of the Catholic Church also extends to the hiring of teachers and control over the staff that train teachers to teach Religious Education.

The Existing Secondary School Course

The NCCA devised and rolled out the State Second Level Religious Education course in the 1990s and 2000s, before and after the Education Act 1998. Atheist Ireland was not founded at that time, so we had no influence on the process. If Atheist Ireland had been in existence, there is no doubt that the NCCA would have sought to marginalise us in the same way as they marginalised Baha’is, Buddhists, Humanists and others who sought to have an input. We would have strongly resisted this marginalisation.

The hundreds of documents that Atheist Ireland has now obtained show that the NCCA and the Department of Education knew about their legal duty to not discriminate on the ground of religion, and their obligations to respect all parents’ convictions under the Constitution. However, the NCCA gave the Catholic Church too much deference and influence, it excluded representatives of non-Christian beliefs, it gave Catholic Diocesan Advisors a formal role in delivering the course, and it ignored clear warning signs that schools would merge the State course with the schools’ own Catholic Religious Instruction.

The NCCA will be revising this State Religious Education course later this year. It is important that it be amended to reverse these problems and to meet human rights standards.

The New Primary School Course

The NCCA is now preparing a similar course for primary schools called Education about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics. Since we were founded in 2008, Atheist Ireland has been actively lobbying for a human rights based State course:

  • that can teach children about religions and beliefs in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner (as per Article II of Protocol 1 in the European Convention);
  • that can fulfil the State’s constitutional obligation to respect the inalienable rights of all parents (Article 42.1);
  • and that can observe the duty to provide for the moral education of all children (Article 42.3.2), without doing so through religion.

Atheist Ireland has raised this issue directly with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Education and the NCCA.

The NCCA is approaching the new Primary Level course in a more impartial way than it did twenty years ago. Under Section 42.1c of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission Act 2014, it is obliged to protect the human rights of its members, staff and the persons to whom it provides services. This is significant for the State courses at both Primary and Second Level, because it means that today’s Second Level State course does not meet the human rights standards that the NCCA is using today, in devising the new Primary Level State course.

However, even the new Primary Level course will still breach constitutional and human rights, unless there are changes in the Education Act 1998 to ensure that it is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, which is out of the control of the NCCA. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has made recommendations to amend the Education Act 1998, in order to bring it into line with the European Convention.

Constitutional and Human Rights Breaches

The Report deals in detail with the constitutional and human rights breaches involved in this course.

Atheist Ireland briefs and addresses international human rights bodies that monitor Ireland’s obligations under human rights treaties. In recent years, nine separate reports from United Nations and Council of Europe Human Rights bodies have told Ireland that it is breaching the human rights of atheist, secular and minority faith parents, children and teachers in Irish schools.

Atheist Ireland has a policy called the Schools Equality PACT (an acronym for Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching) that outlines the legal changes needed. Bizarrely, the Irish State claims it is constitutionally obliged to allow State-funded schools to discriminate against parents and children in this way. This report will help Atheist Ireland to focus attention on these breaches of human and constitutional rights at second level schools.

You can download the full report as a (large 92-page) PDF file here.

Major new report on religious discrimination in State Religious Education course

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