Last month, a 16-year-old student at Borrisokane Community College in Tipperary made an official complaint to the Irish Human Rights Commission. According to the Sunday Times, atheist Nathan Young alleges that his human rights were breached by compulsory prayer services.
THERE ARE TWO good reasons why State schools should be run on a secular basis. But first, it is important to explain that a secular school is not the same thing as an atheist school.
A religious school teaches that a god exists, an atheist school would teach that no gods exist, and a secular school is neutral on the question of religion: it does not teach that gods either do or do not exist.
Instead, a secular school teaches children in a neutral, objective way about the different beliefs that different people have about gods, and leaves it up to parents and churches to teach specific religious beliefs outside of school hours.
Now here are the two reasons why State schools should be run on a secular basis. Firstly, it is good for society for children to be educated together. Secondly, in practical terms, secular schools are the only way to ensure that everybody has their human rights respected with regard to education.
Unfortunately, in Ireland we have no secular schools, and the Catholic Church runs more than 90 per cent of our primary schools.
In 2008 the United Nations Human Rights Committee raised concern about the human rights of secular parents and their children in the Irish education system. The UN recommended that the State should open up non-denominational schools throughout the country.
This was not the first time that this issue has been raised by international human rights bodies. The UN and Council of Europe have now raised the issue of the rights of minorities in the Irish education system five times with the Irish State.
All schools at second level in Ireland are obliged to provide religious worship and instruction in the school and must employ teachers of religion approved by the relevant religious authority.
Borrisokane Community College is no exception, and it is clear from their school plan that it is Christian religious instruction and worship that takes place in the school. It is a myth that schools under the patronage of the VEC are secular non-denominational schools. There are no secular non-denominational schools at either primary or second level in Ireland.
The terms non-denominational, multi-denominational and interdenominational are not legally defined in Ireland. The result of this is that some schools call themselves multi-denominational even when they operate a specific religious ethos.
Church and State
The Department of Education is the patron of several schools in Ireland. The state has informed the UN that five of these are Catholic schools and four are Protestant schools. This means that in Ireland the State manages religious schools. In Ireland there is no separation of Church and state in the education system.
Borrisokane Community College is a religious school. One religion teacher allegedly said that prayer services can be for “Christians or atheists or agnostics or whatever”. It seems silly to point out that atheists don’t say prayers and consequently have the right to opt out of prayer services but it obviously it needs to be said.
To put this into context, the State funds religious instruction and prayers services in schools. It funds the training of religious instruction teachers and pays their salaries. It does not provide any alternative classes for minorities who have a right to opt out of religion. Nor does it provide supervision for minorities who opt out of prayer services.
This is religious discrimination and it clearly breaches the human rights of minorities. In addition to this it permits religion to be integrated into all subjects. It is impossible for minorities to opt out of a religious ethos.
The Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn claimed recently that VEC schools “whether designated to one religion or not, have long been recognised as some of the most inclusive schools in the state.”
Borrisokane Community College is what is referred to as an inclusive school in Ireland. These schools are held up as an example of how pluralist our education is. This is the choice for non-religious parents in Ireland. We can send our children to a religious school under Church patronage or we can send our children to a religious school under the patronage of the VEC.
Minister Quinn recently said that he did not want a secular education system but a pluralist system that provides parents with choice in relation to the education of their children. It is clear that he means choice between one private religious school or another private religious school, or if you are lucky a private multi-denominational school like Educate Together, and that there will be no choice for parents who seek a secular non-religious human rights based education for their children.
The Irish Constitution obliges the state to ensure that all children receive a basic moral education but the state only funds moral education based on religious values. It is a religious moral education or no moral education at all. Schools in Ireland can give preference to co-religionists in order to uphold a religious ethos.
The Equal Status Act provides exemptions for schools that operate a religious ethos. The European Convention on Human Rights Act only applies to ‘organs of the state’ and schools in Ireland are not considered ‘organs of the state’. It is no wonder that the United Nations and Council of Europe are concerned about the human rights of minorities in the Irish education system.
Jane Donnelly is the Education Policy Officer for Atheist Ireland. You can find out more at their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter. Atheist Ireland also runs the Teach Don’t Preach campaign for secular education – find it on Facebook here.