The atheist parents of a boy who was found to have been discriminated against by a Catholic primary school have expressed their "absolute delight" with a Workplace Relations Commission ruling.
The commission found that Yellow Furze primary school in Co Meath discriminated against the boy by assigning him homework and rewarding his classmates who attended a First Communion choir ceremony with "homework passes".
The finding is like to have implications for Catholic schools who reward students for attending religious ceremonies. About 90 per cent of all primary schools are controlled by the Catholic Church.
The boy’s mother, who declined to be named on the basis that it would identify her child, said the family was delighted with the ruling.
“We never doubted that our position was correct but we do feel vindicated as it became apparent at the hearing that there were teachers in the school and families in our community that felt our position was wrong,” she said.
She told the commission that her son was deeply upset after being “penalised” with homework for not attending the choir ceremony in May last year.
The mother also argued that he did not have the option to take part in the ceremony as the family are atheist.
The school, which did not respond to requests for comment, told the commission during the hearing that the complaint of discrimination was “wholly unfounded” and said all children 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.
However, the commission found there was clear evidence of discriminatory treatment under the Equal Status Acts towards the boy on religious grounds.
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. It awarded them €5,000.
Under both the Constitution and the Education Act (1998), parents have a right to have their children opt out of religion classes if they wish.
In practice, many parents say they find it difficult to exert their right to opt their children out of religion classes.
Atheist Ireland said the commission's ruling was "an important win for the right to freedom of belief".
"You have a constitutional right to attend any school without attending religious classes or ceremonies. This ruling shows that schools cannot get around that right by punishing children who don't take part in religion," said Jane Donnelly, human rights officer with Atheist Ireland.
“For years, schools just directly forced children into religious classes and ceremonies. When parents complained to Atheist Ireland about this, we have always succeeded in getting the schools to back down.
“Now schools are trying to make it harder to exercise your right to opt out of religion. They tell you to go to another school, or sit at the back of the religion class, or use rewards and punishments like this. That’s not what homework is for, and it’s not what religion is for.”
However, groups such as the Catholic Schools Partnership have pointed out that there are clear guidelines on the inclusion of non-religious pupils in Catholic schools.
These include recommendations that schools provide students who are opting out with alternative activities during religious instruction or ceremonies.
It has also pointed to research by the Economic and Social Research Institute 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 family of the boy, meanwhile, said they plan to give the sum of money they were awarded to charity.