RELIGIOUS INTEGRATED CURRICULUM / POST-PRIMARY RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
1 October 2010.
This brief by Atheist Ireland (see http://www.atheist.ie) details our complaint to the Minister for Education and Skills about the religious integrated curriculum and religious education in post-primary schools.
1.The State has failed by its laws and policies to protect the fundamental rights of non-religious parents in the education system. We do not enjoy basic Constitutional rights such as freedom of conscience as the State has failed to protect those rights. We believe this situation has developed due to the disrespect the State has for the philosophical convictions of non-religious parents.
2.Non-religious parents are not guaranteed access to a secular human rights based education for their children at either primary or second level. They are not even guaranteed a right of access to the majority of schools in the country (as is required by Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000). With this legislation the State has also brought about a situation where non-religious parents are obliged to reveal they are non-believers.
3.The five specific grounds of our complaint are as follows:
i.A religious integrated curriculum denies parents who so wish, access to a secular education and denies them their human rights. This is discriminatory and it breaches the right to freedom of conscience, the right to equality before the law and denies the rights of the child. This right to a secular education is guaranteed by international human rights law (see CCPR/C/IRL/CO/3 – July 2008 – International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights, and various cases at the European Court of Human Rights).
ii.The Religious Education course under the curriculum disrespects the philosophical convictions of non- religious parents.
iii.The exemption clause Section 30(2)(e) of the Education Act 1998 is a theoretical illusion and inoperable in practice.
iv.By obliging parents to reveal that they hold no religious beliefs, their right to privacy – as well as that of their children – is ignored.
v.The information and knowledge included in the curriculum is not conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.
ACCESS TO SECULAR EDUCATION
4.In Ireland all schools at second level are obliged to teach doctrinal Religious Instruction and the majority of schools in the country also operate a religious integrated curriculum. This includes denominational schools and so called multi-denominational schools such as Community Schools and Designated Community Colleges. In order to access second level education, the children of non-religious parents must in practice attend one of these schools, and indeed are obliged by Section 17(1) of the Education Welfare Act 2000 to do so.
5.As well as doctrinal Religious Instruction in all second level schools, there is also a Religious Education Course under the curriculum which is claimed to be suitable for all religions and none. A Religious Education Course under the curriculum comes with certain human rights obligations. The European Court of Human Rights has stated that: “where the Contracting States include the study of religion in the subjects on school curricula, and irrespective of the arrangements for exemption, pupils’ parents may legitimately expect that the subject will be taught in such a way as to meet the criteria of objectivity and pluralism, and with respect for their religious or philosophical convictions” (para 68, Hasan and Eylem Zengin v Turkey, ECHR, 9th October 2007).
6.This is reinforced in our national legislation, as Section 7(2)(b) of the Equal Status Act 2000 clearly obliges educational establishments not to discriminate in relation to “the access of a student to any course, facility or benefit provided by the establishment”.
RESPECT FOR PARENTAL WISHES
7.The United Nations in their General Comment on Article 13 – The Right to Education – International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has said: “Article 13(3) has two elements, one of which is that State parties undertake to respect the liberty of parents and guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. The Committee is of the view that this element of article 13(3) permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in an unbiased and objective way, respectful of the freedoms of opinion, conscience and expression. It notes that public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with article 13(3) unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians.”
8.As well as discovering that the content of the Religious Education course disrespects non-religious parents we have learned that some schools are combining the Religious Education course under the curriculum with the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students. These schools are then presenting the course to non-religious parents as a compulsory subject along with English, Irish and Mathematics and thus as suitable for all religions and none. It cannot be claimed that this course is suitable for all religions and none as it disrespects the philosophical convictions of non-religious parents and has elements of religious formation.
9.One of the stated aims of the Religious Education course at second level is “To appreciate the richness of religious traditions and to acknowledge the non-religious interpretation of life”. The non-religious interpretation of life is merely acknowledged in passing in a section of the course alongside materialism and fundamentalism called ‘Challenges to Faith’.
10.Merely acknowledging the non-religious interpretation of life does not constitute respect for the philosophical convictions of non-religious parents under Article 2 of Protocol 1 (Right to Education) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights has stated: “The verb ‘respect’ means more than ‘acknowledge’ or ‘take into account’. In addition to a primarily negative undertaking, it implies some positive obligation on the part of the State. The term ‘conviction’, taken on its own, is not synonymous with the words ‘opinions’ and ‘ideas’. It denotes views that attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance (see Valsamis, pp. 2323-24, & 25 and 27, and Campbell and Cosans, pp. 16-17, & 36-37)” (para 84-c – General Principles Folgero v Norway, ECHR, 29th June 2007).
11.The syllabus drawn up by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment allows flexibility in regard to the actual presentation of its content according to particular Christian denominations and faith traditions. In any school that has a religious ethos such as Denominational Schools, VEC Community Schools and VEC Designated Community Colleges, the Board of Management has a legal right to teach this course through the lens of the Catholic Church. These schools can therefore combine the Religious Education course under the curriculum with the Guidelines for the faith formation and development of Catholic students. This course has elements of religious formation and is not delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner which is a requirement of human rights law.
EXEMPTION FROM RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
12.There is an exemption clause under Section 30(2)(e) of the Education Act 1998 which does not require students to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parents. There should be no need for non-religious parents to use this as the course is supposed to be open to all. In order to access the course which they are entitled to do under Section 7(2)(b) of the Equal Status Act, non-religious parents must attempt to opt their child out from the elements of religious formation in the course, while at the same enduring the disrespect of the State for their philosophical convictions. They need to acquaint themselves with all aspects of the subject with a view to determining which parts of the subject is religious formation in order to exempt their child from those sections. They would obviously be compelled to discuss their personal convictions in detail to the school authorities in order to achieve this. It is a very heavy burden for non-religious parents seeking to access a course that is claimed to be open to all religions and none. There is no legitimate need for this burden when all second level schools are permitted to teach doctrinal Religious Instruction (formation) separately (Circular letter 73/74, Deeds of Trust for Community Schools and the Model Agreement for Designated Community Colleges).
13.The Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students issued by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference states: “The syllabus, intended for certification and assessment, drawn up by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, allows flexibility in regard to the actual presentation of its content according to particular Christian denominations and faith traditions.” Section 30(2)(e) of the Education Act does not oblige schools to inform parents that they are combining the Religious Education Course under the curriculum with the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students. The State has made no regulations for partial non-discriminatory exemptions and has simply absolved itself of any responsibility to protect the fundamental human rights of non-religious parents and protect them from discrimination.
14.The European Court of Human Rights has linked Article 2 of Protocol 1 (The Right to Education) of the European Convention on Human Rights with Article 8 (The Right to Respect for Private and Family Life), Article 9 (Freedom of Thought Conscience and Religion) and Article 10 (Freedom of Expression). The exemption clause of the Education Act 1998 does not take into account any of these rights due to the disrespect the State holds for the philosophical convictions of non-religious parents and their failure to protect their human rights.
15.In 2009 the Vatican issued a Circular Letter to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools. The purpose of that letter was to recall some of the principles that are rooted in Catholic Church teaching. It is worth pointing out that the majority of schools in the country at both primary and second level operate a Catholic religious ethos (integrated curriculum). The Vatican stated: “It is clear that teaching the Catholic religion has its own specific nature vis-a-vis other school subjects” (Circular Letter from Congregation for Catholic Education, Vatican to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools 2009).
16.Because of this teaching which is protected by legislation, Section 15(2)(b) of the Education Act 1998, non–religious parents must attempt to exempt their child out of the elements of religion that is integrated into all the various subjects under the curriculum. They must exempt their child out of religious observance and the evangelising influence of a religious ethos in the general milieu of the school. They are required to acquaint themselves with all aspects of every subject and all aspects of the religious expression of the school in order to attempt to access a secular education for their child. Because of the teachings of the Catholic Church there are potential areas of all subjects that they could legitimately consider likely to give rise in their children to a conflict of allegiance between the school and their own values.
17.The exemption clause Section 30(2)(e) of the Education Act 1998 is a theoretical illusion and simply cannot operate in practice when religion is integrated into all subjects. Non-religious parents are deterred from even seeking to exempt their children out of religious formation and the evangelising influence of the school because of the problems it would create for their child and the burden it would create for them. Non-religious parents cannot ensure that the education and teaching of their children is in conformity with their philosophical convictions. The State has brought about a situation where non-religious parents are left with a choice between a religious education for their children or no education at all. The State has put non-religious parents into a position where they must reveal their philosophical convictions in order to access an education for their children.
18.This position again conflicts with international law. In Grzelak v. Poland, the ECHR stated: “The Court reiterates that freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs comprises also a negative aspect, namely the right of individuals not to be required to reveal their faith or religious beliefs and not to be compelled to assume a stance from which it may be inferred whether or not they have such beliefs (see, Alexandridis v Greece, no. 19516/06, § 38, ECHR 2008 ..., and, mutatis mutandis, Hasan and Eylem Zengin v Turkey, no. 1448/04, § 76 in fine, ECHR 2007 XI). The Court has accepted, as noted above, that Article 9 is also a precious asset for non-believers like the third applicant in the present case. It necessarily follows that there will be an interference with the negative aspect of this provision when the State brings about a situation in which individuals are obliged – directly or indirectly – to reveal that they are non-believers. This is all the more important when such obligation occurs in the context of the provision of an important public service such as education. Having regard to the foregoing, the Court finds that the absence of a mark for ‘religion/ethics’ on the successive school reports of the third applicant falls within the ambit of the negative aspect of freedom of thought, conscience and religion protected by Article 9 of the Convention as it may be read as showing his lack of religious affiliation.”
19.Requiring parents to pro-actively seek exemptions for their children clearly involves the State in obliging parents to reveal their lack of religious faith. Moreover, the children themselves may find that universities and other public bodies, as well as private employers, could in the future make inferences based on the absence of any RE course on their Leaving or Junior Certificate.
CONTENT OF RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
20.In addition to all the above the State does not oblige schools to convey the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner which means that any school can convey any subject according to their religious ethos. It is simply not possible for non-religious parents to ensure that their children are taught all subjects under the curriculum objectively.
21.The Vatican has stated: “The marginalization of religious education in schools is equivalent to assuming – at least in practice – an ideological position that can lead pupils into error or do them a disservice. Moreover, if religious education is limited to a presentation of the different religions, in a comparative and ‘neutral’ way, it creates confusion or generates religious relativism or indifferentism” (Circular letter from Congregation for Catholic Education, Vatican to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools 2009).
22.As a religious ethos means integrating religion into all subjects and as it is not the teaching of the Catholic Church to convey religion objectively, no subject under the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The Irish State protects by legislation the right of schools to integrate religion into all subjects and does not oblige schools to ensure it is taught objectively despite the fact that non-religious parents have no choice but to access an education for their children in these schools.
23.There is a clear difference between this and what is required by human rights law as the European Court of Human Rights has stated: “The second sentence of Article 2 implies on the other hand that the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, enabling pupils to develop a critical mind with regard to religion (see, in particular, paragraph 14 of Recommendation 1720 (2005) Council of Europe, in a calm atmosphere which is free of any misplaced proselytism” (para 52, Hasan and Eylem Zengin v Turkey, ECHR, 9th October 2007).
24.A religious integrated curriculum has no regard to the principles and requirements of a democratic society and consequently Section 15(2)(b) of the Education Act 1998 is simply incompatible with Section 15(2)(e) which obliges Boards of Management to have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life in society. Democratic societies do not deny non-religious parents their basic fundamental human rights while accessing an education for their children nor do they fail to protect them from religious discrimination.
25.There are now two significant cases at the European Court of Human Rights in relation to Religious Education courses – Folgero v Norway (29th June 2007) and Hasan and Eylem Zengin v Turkey (9th October 2007), and many more that relate to education in general. There is also a case at the United Nations – Leirvag v Norway (23rd November 2004). These cases show us that our education system breaches the fundamental human rights of non-religious parents. The UN Human Rights Committee has already raised the issue of a religious integrated curriculum at primary level and this also applies to second level denominational Schools and any VEC school that operates a religious integrated curriculum such as Community Schools and Designated Community Colleges. The United Nations stated: “The Committee notes with concern that the vast majority of Ireland’s primary schools are privately run denominational schools that have adopted a religious integrated curriculum thus depriving many parents and children who so wish to have access to secular primary education (Article 2 Freedom from Discrimination, Article 18 Freedom of Conscience, Article 24 The Rights of the Child and Article 26 Equality Before the Law)” (CCPR/C/IRL/CO/3 – July 2008 – International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights).
26.That Ireland has changed enormously – demographically and culturally – over the last two decades is not only undeniable but also an indication of the vitality and strength of our republican democracy. This is now a modern and pluralist society for a diverse people. Social policy – and in particular, education policy – must accommodate these changes in order to promote the further development of active and tolerant citizenship. This means, in part, that it is no longer acceptable to simply assume that all Irish are Catholics, or even religious believers at all. Public policy should, wherever possible, tend towards neutrality in this regard so that no specific theology is privileged. As the European Court of Human Rights has stated, in Grzelak v Poland 15/06/10 para 86, “In democratic societies, in which several religions coexist within one and the same population, it may be necessary to place restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and religion in order to reconcile the interests of the various groups and ensure that everyone’s beliefs are respected (see Kokkinakis, § 33). The Court has frequently emphasised the State’s role as the neutral and impartial organiser of the exercise of various religions, faiths and beliefs, and stated that this role is conducive to public order, religious harmony and tolerance in a democratic society (see Leyla Şahin v Turkey [GC], no. 44774/98, § 107, ECHR 2005 XI).”
27.The European Court of Human Rights has consistently held that the responsibility of a State is engaged if a violation of one of the rights and freedoms defined the Convention is the result of non-observance by that State of its obligation under Article 1 to secure those rights and freedoms in its domestic law to everyone in its jurisdiction. The fundamental right to education is a right guaranteed equally to pupils in all schools, state or private, no distinction being made between the two. The Irish State has an obligation to secure to children their rights to education under Article 2 of Protocol 1 and cannot absolve itself of that responsibility by delegating that responsibility to private bodies and institutions (para 26 Costello Roberts v UK, ECHR, 1993). Under the International Covenant on Civil & Political rights there is a positive obligation on the State not only to protect violations of Covenant rights by its agents but also against acts committed by private persons or entities that would impair the enjoyment of Covenant rights (para 8 – General Comment 31 – The nature of the General Legal obligations imposed on States Parties to the Covenant). By ratifying this Covenant the Irish State were obliged to take the necessary steps to give effect to the Covenant right in the domestic legal order (para 13 – General Comment 31 ).
28.Equality before the law and equal protection of the law without discrimination of any kind is a fundamental principle in the protection of human rights. The Irish domestic legal framework has failed, and is continuing to fail, to guarantee this basic human rights principle to the non-religious.
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[Posting on behalf of Conor & Marks]