Catholic schools that reward pupils who attend religious ceremonies are discriminating against non-Catholic pupils, the Workplace Relations Commission has found.
In a ruling, the commission found that Yellow Furze primary school in Co Meath discriminated against an atheist pupil by rewarding his classmates who attended a First Communion choir ceremony with homework passes.
The ruling is likely to have implications for Catholic schools – which make up 90 per cent of primary schools – in how they organise religious events and incentivise children to attend them.
The mother of the child at the centre of the case said her son was upset after being “penalised” with homework for not attending the choir ceremony.
She argued that he did not have the option to take part in the ceremony as the family are atheist.
“He came out of school crying,” said the boy’s mother, who declined to be named on the basis that it would identify her child.
“On that day my son was the only child in the class who was not participating. He was also the only non-Catholic child in his class. We are atheist and this is not a choice that is open to him.”
The school submitted in the hearing that the claim was “wholly unfounded” and said all children – regardless of their religion – were able to participate in the ceremony.
As a Catholic school, it said it enjoyed a proud tradition of participating in religious ceremonies and that music was an integral part of this.
It added that its code of behaviour provided that all children who participate in extra-curricular activities or events on behalf of the school will receive a “reward” for their doing so.
The commission, however, found that there was prima facie evidence of discriminatory treatment under the Equal Status Acts towards the boy on grounds of religion.
It also found that the parents were deeply hurt and upset by the treatment of the school to the point they have removed their boy from school.
By maintaining it is appropriate to award a benefit to children to attend a religious ceremony, the commission found that the school “does not appreciate this action had an adverse effect on students who are not of a Catholic faith”.
The commission awarded a sum of €5,000 in respect of discriminatory treatment and ordered the school to review its policies to ensure it complies with the provisions of the Equal Status Acts.
A notice to this effect should also be placed in a prominent position within the school. The school did not respond to a request for comment to the finding on Thursday.