Lautsi ruling no proof of support for religious education system


The forum on education patronage should consider the Lautsi ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, writes RONAN MCCREA

THE ESTABLISHMENT by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn of a forum on the question of patronage of Irish schools means the coming months are likely to see major debate on the relationship between religious denominations and the education system.

Those in favour of the denominational nature of the Irish system have been heartened by last month’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the Lautsi case.

In this case the court reversed a previous ruling and held that the presence of crucifixes in Italian state schools did not amount to a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, those who see the Lautsi judgment as evidence that the Irish education system is in compliance with our European human rights obligations would do well to examine the judgment more carefully.

The court’s conclusion that the presence of crucifixes in state schools did not breach the right of parents to ensure education is provided in a manner that respects their philosophical convictions was based primarily on the idea of “margin of appreciation”.

The court noted the diverse approaches of European countries to religion in schools and held that such diversity made it appropriate for it to grant a degree of deference to member state practices.

Its conclusion that Italy had not exceeded this margin was based on the fact that a crucifix on a wall in an otherwise secular school is an “essentially passive symbol” and that there was no compulsory teaching of Christianity or use of “teaching practices with a proselytising tendency” in Italian schools.

Contrast this situation with that in Ireland, where more than 90 per cent of schools are under the patronage of the Catholic Church, and where the “integrated curriculum” means that the religious ethos of the religious patron is intended to permeate the entire school day and teaching of all subjects.

In short, the degree of interference with parental rights inherent in the current Irish education system is much more severe than that upheld by the Court in Lautsi. The Catholic Church has indicated it is willing to hand over control of some of its schools to reflect changing religious demographics.

However, we are likely to remain with a system that is overwhelmingly denominational in character.

Those in favour of a system of denominational schools argue it is best way to guarantee parental choice. However, one can only justifiably claim that degree of choice that is consistent with a similar degree of choice for others.

A denominational education system fails such a test. In many areas there is only sufficient population to support a single school.

If a majority of parents in that area are of one faith and a denominational school is established to reflect this, all other parents will be required to send their children to schools that actively promote a religion other than the one they desire to pass on to their children.

It would not be reasonable for Catholic parents living in an area that is 55 per cent atheist to have to send their children to schools dedicated to the promotion of atheism, where atheism permeates the school day and the walls of each classroom hold pictures of atheist figures such Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Similarly, is it unreasonable for non-Catholic parents in majority Catholic areas to have to send their children to schools that promote the Catholic faith.

One cannot claim a school run by your own denomination is vital to reinforce the ability to pass on your religion to your children while at the same time arguing that there is no real damage to those of other faiths required to attend such schools.

A denominational system provides choice for some only at the cost of the rights of others. The only fair approach is for the State to provide educational facilities that promote neither religion nor atheism. This is the only approach capable of equally respecting the rights of all.

The values to be promoted by such schools would, of course, require careful negotiation to ensure and adequately respect the convictions of diverse groups of parents as well as the rights of the child.

In areas where the population could support more than one school, it might well be reasonable for the State to facilitate religious parents by establishing further schools to accommodate a desire for denominational education. However, it should only do so once it has fulfilled its obligation to provide everyone with educational facilities that can be used by those of all faiths and none.

As it stands, the education system in Ireland in effect requires some parents to send their children to schools that actively promote a faith that is contrary to their own.

Such a situation is some distance from the scenario of secular schools with a passive symbolic crucifix accepted by the Strasbourg Court in its judgment last month.

The Lautsi decision should not therefore be taken as any indication that the current relationship between religious organisations and the education system is compatible with the European Convention.

Indeed, given the commitment of our own Constitution to respecting parental rights and Article 44.2.4’s protection of “the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction”, one may well share the doubts of the 1996 Constitution Review Group that the system is even compatible with Bunreacht na hÉireann.

Dr Ronan McCrea is a barrister and lectures in law in the University of Reading.

He is the author of Religion and the Public Order of the European Union (Oxford University Press, 2010)