State secondary schools are refusing to implement a directive which requires them to provide students who opt out of religious instruction with access to another subject.
Last year, the Department of Education issued a circular requiring State schools to timetable alternative tuition throughout the school year for students who opt out of religious instruction.
This was aimed at ending the practice of assuming that pupils are predominately Catholic and requiring non-religious or minority faith students to do homework during religious instruction.
The circular applies to State-run schools, such as community schools or those run by Education and Training Boards (ETBs), which account for about half of secondary schools or 160,000 pupils.
Voluntary secondary schools, typically run or owned by religious organisations, are not affected by the circular.
However, new documents show most State schools are not implementing the circular on the basis that they do no have resources to provide alternative tuition.
ETB schools, for example, were recently directed by their umbrella body to “maintain the status-quo in relation to the provision of religious education and opting-out arrangements”.
A spokesman for the department has confirmed that the circular, issued in October last year, remains in place and schools are required to follow it.
The campaign group Atheist Ireland said the failure of State schools to implement these measures means non-religious students are being discriminated against.
"The practical application of maintaining the status quo means students who exercise their constitutional and human right not to attend religious teaching cannot access another optional subject," said Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland.
Nessa White, general secretary of Education and Training Boards Ireland, confirmed that the umbrella body's advice to schools has been to maintain the "status quo" in relation to allowing students to opt out of religious instruction.
“Religious education is open to all students regardless of their religion or world view. In some instances, parents or students over the age of 18 wish to opt out of religious education. This is fully permitted in ETB schools.
“However, our schools have not been provided with any additional resources to provide alternative classes to students who opt out. Our schools cater for these students to the best of their ability with the resources currently available to them.”
What about community schools?
Ms White insisted that ETB schools are “multidenominational and cater for all students regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs”.
Many community schools are also not implementing the circular, which also requires schools to proactively establish the wishes of parents in relation to opting out of religious worship or instruction.
The circular states this should be integrated with the school’s processes for establishing subject choices generally.
“Past practice of assuming that the pupil body is predominately Catholic and arranging religious instruction accordingly is no longer an appropriate approach,” the circular states.
“ In a changing context the constitutional right not to attend religious instruction must be given effect through changed practices.”