Atheist Ireland welcomes today’s concluding observations about Ireland from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. We were in Geneva last month when the Committee questioned Ireland, and the Committee has made all of the recommendations we asked for.
The UN has told Ireland to remove all exceptions based on religious or ethos to children attending any school; to establish statutory guidelines to ensure children’s right not to attend religious classes; to establish non-denominational schools as well as multi-denominational schools.
Atheist Ireland made the above recommendations along with our colleagues in the Evangelical Alliance and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland. We liaised with the UN Committee members in Geneva on follow-up questions to Irish State’s initial responses.
The UN Committee has also told Ireland to to eliminate discrimination against children of minority faith or non-faith backgrounds; to ensure access of adolescent girls to free and safe abortion; and to integrate evidence-based sex education into mandatory school curricula and teacher training.
UN Recommendations on Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- The Committee urges the State party to guarantee the right of all children to practice freely their religion or belief, including by:
(a) Amending the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 and the Equal Status Acts to remove any exceptions to ensuring a child’s right to education in all primary and secondary schools based on religious or “ethos” grounds and to establish statutory guidelines to ensure children’s right not to attend religious classes;
(b) Developing a time-bound strategy, with adequate resources, for meeting its targets for increasing the availability of multi-denominational schools by 2030, and setting a target with a time-bound strategy and adequate resources for increasing the availability of non-denominational schools.
Relevance of these UN Recommendations
This report is another step towards equality in religion and belief in Irish schools. We cannot continue to discriminate against children in this manner. It is religious discrimination to refuse a child access to education, or to discriminate against them within a school, because their parents are atheists or belong to a minority faith.
Amending the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 and the Equal Status Acts will ensure that all children regardless of their religion or belief will have access to their local schools without religious discrimination. Currently non-Catholic primary schools and all secondary schools can discriminate in access based on religion, and all schools can refuse access to a five-year-old child if they say the child undermines the school’s ethos.
Having statutory guidelines on the right to not attend religious instruction will mean that the human and constitutional right to not attend religious instruction will be given practical application on the ground. Currently children are left sitting in the religion class and are not supervised outside the class. This concluding observation reflects Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution which guarantees the right to not attend religious instruction and makes it a condition of state aid.
Providing non-denominational schools is the only way to provide secular education in Ireland. At present there are no non-denominational schools (as well as multi-denominational schools, which are religious schools). During follow-up questions in Geneva, the Irish State admitted that it has no plans to open any non-denominational schools. The UN has now specifically told them to do this.