Forced into faith: ‘We are second-class citizens in the education system’

Many parents say they find it difficult to exert their right to opt their children out of religion classes


Parents have a constitutional right to opt their children out of religion classes in schools.

The Catholic church, which controls about 90 per cent of the State’s primary schools, says it respects this and encourages principals to accommodate these children.

But the reality is often different. Parents in many instances say it can be close to impossible to exercise their rights.

In Catholic schools some parents tell of how their non-Catholic children are forced to attend church services and how they often come home talking of Jesus or with ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday.

In some cases, up to a third of a class of children sit in a class with nothing to do while their classmates learn about religion.

Under-resourced schools, which have obligations to provide religious instruction, struggle to supervise or find an alternative for them. Sometimes they don’t have a religion book but otherwise listen to the teacher.

The Irish Times has spoken to parents in detail and gathered more than 20 examples of children who say they have had their rights infringed, or where children of no faith or minority religions have been obliged to attend masses or religion classes.

Although a rule which required that religion “permeate the school day” was rescinded under former education minister Jan O’Sullivan, officials acknowledged at the time that this was largely symbolic. As a result, there is no real change to the fact that prayers, religious services and religious references may remain throughout the school day.

Inclusive guidance

These issues are unfolding against the backdrop of a much more diverse education system. The latest census showed nearly half a million people identify as having no religion, and 45 per cent of these are between the ages of 20-39, the cohort most likely to have young families. In addition, about 12 per cent identify as members of other faiths including other Christian denominations, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. 

Kate Stapleton, a PhD researcher at Dublin City University (DCU), has conducted research into the experience of non-Catholic students at Catholic schools.

She interviewed 21 non-Catholic students, either from non-religious or minority religions, who were attending Catholic schools and found that they felt an “otherness“.

The most troubling finding of her work was the demand made of some non-Catholic students to acquiesce in religious practices in schools.

Despite the legal entitlement of parents and students to opt out of religion classes, it was often not tolerated. Some students recount obligatory mass attendance, being required to stand for prayers and simply not being allowed opt of religion class.

Another problem is that many school ceremonies such as graduation are often based around mass, and one student recalled how their parents couldn‘t come to their graduation because of this.

Vulnerable to discrimination

International research has found that non-religious people are vulnerable to discrimination in a predominantly religious society, but the Muslim students interviewed also described being excluded and abused by teachers and classmates.

The Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP) says it does not support these practices and has provided guidance for schools on inclusivity. Ferdia Kelly, chief executive of the CSP, says Catholic schools have led the way in integrating students from all faith traditions and none.

This, he says, has been acknowledged by the ESRI and Department of Education inspectors’ reports, which have found an “ overwhelming majority of parents and students find their schools to be well-managed and welcoming”.

The CSP published guidelines in 2015 on the inclusion of non-religious pupils in Catholic schools which made recommendations that schools provide students who are opting out with alternative activities during religious instruction.

Kelly says parents’ wishes are respected and arrangements are put in place in the event of requests to opt-out of religious programmes and liturgical celebrations.

“School management and parents will have to arrive at an understanding of the practical arrangements for students during times when they opt out of religious education programmes and liturgical celebrations,” says Kelly.

Some parents, however, say they have not seen this kind of flexibility played out in practice.

Peter is a parent in Kerry and has a 12-year old son. There is no alternative in his area to the local Catholic school. He opted his son out of religion but says it has made little difference.

“The first thing he learned was how to pray. We have had prayers coming back as homework, family prayers, priests popping in and out and religion and prayers occurring repeatedly during the day.

“Now, after speaking to the principal, he has been sent out of the class for religion class; they have done their best. “But he still goes to church when there are services and they are obliged to quietly watch the service.

“A woman came in to discuss sex and relationships but she told me she cannot talk about homosexuality or give any details on contraception, on account of the school’s ethos.”

Non-Catholic schools

Difficulties over opting-out issues are not confined to Catholic schools. Take the example of Paula, a mother-of-three from south Dublin.

“We are second-class citizens in the education system,” she says. “My husband and I were baptised Catholic but, like a lot of people, have parted company from the church. “We struggled to get school places for the children - we didn’t want them to go through communion - and eventually got them a place at a Church of Ireland school.

“We never pretended to be Protestant. We initially allowed them to take part in religion as we were so grateful to be able to send them to school that we didn’t want to be the difficult parents. Opting out marks you out.

“When they came home telling bible stories, we saw it as like any other story. But, as time went on, a rector was coming in three days a week to assembly, and telling the children that it was important to believe in God and that Christians were the best people.

“My children are mixed race and have Hindu relatives. We wrote to the school and opted our daughter out. This meant she missed assembly and all the notices.”

Paula asked the principal if assembly could be organised so that she and other parents who are not Protestant or who do not wish their children to hear religious sermons could still take part.

She received a letter from the chair of the board of management, a reverend, stating that the assembly formed a fundamental part of the school’s Christian ethos and that they would not alter it in any way.


School management bodies and religious groups, however, say they are making major strides to accommodate a diverse population.

Kelly says dialogue is key and says parents’ concerns around a value system that permeates the life of the school should also be addressed in conversations with school management.

“However, all organisations, faith-based and otherwise, operate a value system or ethos which will impact on the day-to-day life of the organisation. A school’s ethos or value system should not be confused with its religious education programme,” Kelly says.

Many parents and students, in the meantime, say they are still grappling with these issues on the ground. Whether the engagement leads to solutions, remains to be seen.

Church vs State: who owns our school buildings?

Religion hasn’t always permeated the entire school day. In fact, says Áine Hyland, professor emeritus of education at University College Cork (UCC), it has only happened only since 1965.

“Prior to this, religious instruction took place at the beginning or end of the school day, and a sign was placed on the door to denote when faith classes were taking place so that Catholics and Protestants did not proselytise to each other’s children,” says Hyland.

So what changed? “It is part of Catholic theology that religion should permeate a person’s life and, therefore, the school day.

“Since a report from the committee on the curriculum in 1926, chaired by a Jesuit priest, there had always been a movement to realise this and they put pressure on the DES [Department of Education and Skills]. So in 1965, the rule was brought in and was only rescinded recently, but schools haven’t necessarily followed.

“What we are seeing at the moment is the church trying to hold on to what they have and they are holding to the theological position that religion should not be separate from other subjects.”

Hyland herself has been involved in campaigns to provide greater access to multi-denominational or non-denominational education.

She was one of the founders of the Dalkey School Project, which was the precursor to the Educate Together movement, and is also a board member of Equate.

Hyland says the State been slow to move on these issues because the church owns school buildings, and the Constitution protects its property rights.

“It is within their gift. That said, Mary O’Rourke managed to get five buildings transferred to Educate Together as Minister for Education, so it can be done.

Richard Bruton says he wants 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030, but that will still be less than 10 per cent of schools, and right now there are 90 per cent plus Catholic schools and only 78 per cent of the population identifying as Catholic .

“The last few years have been disappointing; I can understand where the church is coming from but the State needs to hold the line in relation to all of its citizens. And they are not doing it.”

Some schools, clearly, are showing flexibility. But for parents and students who are are still grappling with theses issues on the ground, it remains to be seen whether engagement leads to solutions.

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