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Should religion be taken out of the classroom? Rob Sadlier vs Jen Hogan

Children have a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction, yet in many schools, it’s not easy to opt out

The Debate

Rob Sadlier: Yes. Our education system is not one befitting a modern, pluralistic republic

If we were to design a school system from scratch today, it might be one in which the State would not sponsor religious indoctrination of any kind. This would be in keeping with the principle of separation of church and state. But, when it comes to our school system, we have entanglement of church and state.

Ireland’s national school system, established by the Stanley Letter in 1831, envisaged a multidenominational model. Religious instruction was to be permitted “either before or after the ordinary school hours”. “Even the suspicion of proselytism” was to be “banished”. Over time, the system became a denominational one, monopolised by religious bodies.

In Ireland, the State effectively outsources its constitutional obligation to “provide for” primary education to “patrons”, around 95 per cent of which are religious, and around 90 per cent of which are Catholic. This is an aberration.

Children have a constitutional right “to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”, but this right is systemically breached. Children who “opt out” of timetabled religious instruction – which usually occurs in the middle of the school day – typically must remain in the classroom, where they still attend, and therefore still absorb, said religious instruction in breach of their constitutional right. Children have reported that they have experienced distress as a result. Given the demographic changes in Irish society, the number of children seeking not to attend religious instruction can only be expected to rise.


The Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 introduced a requirement for schools’ admission policies to provide details of arrangements they offer to students who do not want to attend religious instruction. Many schools do not do this. Instead, their admission policies typically direct parents to make an appointment with the school principal to discuss the matter.

Parents who complain to the Department of Education are advised that it is for each individual school to decide how it facilitates the right not to attend religious instruction. This ignores the fact that schools do not facilitate a real and effective opt-out from religious instruction at all, that this is a clear breach of a constitutional right, and that the State funds this system. Despite spending billions of euro annually on this system, the State completely fails in its responsibility to ensure that the constitutional right of children not to attend religious instruction is protected. When parents complain to schools on this issue, they are usually advised that they do not have the resources to provide a real and effective opt-out. And who provides the resources? The Department of Education.

The group I represent, Education Equality, has procured a legal opinion which states that where a child opts out of attending religious instruction, that child is expressly excused from attending the classroom.

On top of religious instruction, religious schools – which, remember, comprise around 95 per cent of publicly-funded schools – practise the “integrated curriculum”, whereby “faith formation” permeates the entire school day. It is impossible for children to opt-out of these more subtle forms of indoctrination. These are not abstract issues. They are very real for the children and parents affected.

“Build your own schools” is a common refrain from advocates of denominational education, but even if more non or multi-denominational schools were built, children attending denominational schools would still have a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction.

The divestment/reconfiguration process is a lame duck. The target of 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030 is a fantasy. Just one school was transferred to a multi-denominational patron in 2022. Even if a future government were to achieve the 400 target, it would only amount to around 13 per cent of primary schools.

Our education system is not one befitting the modern, pluralistic republic that Ireland is. It needs to change. Moving religious instruction to outside core school hours on an opt-in basis in all state-funded schools would be a good start. This simple step would vindicate children’s constitutional right not to attend religious instruction, while still making it available to children who wanted to receive it.

Rob Sadlier is a father, solicitor and Human Rights Officer with Education Equality, a voluntary parent-led human rights advocacy group which aims to promote equality in the Irish education system, regardless of religion.

Jen Hogan: No. Call me a ‘bouncy castle Catholic’, but I appreciate the values religion offers my children

I suffer from Catholic guilt. Not in the way you might expect from someone who makes a statement like that, but rather in an ‘I feel guilty about being Catholic’, kind of way. I’m what’s often referred to as an a la carte Catholic - even a “bouncy castle Catholic” by those who are particularly dismissive. But that is about as much as I can manage. I can’t reconcile who I am with the Catholic Church’s position on gay marriage, divorce, women, or its cruel and shameful past. So I pick and choose what I take from it and actively tell my children that the church is completely wrong in some of its teachings. I go to Mass on special occasions only. Us a la carte Catholics come in for a lot of criticism. The demand is that we should each be all or nothing. Yet I suspect a significant portion of the 69 per cent of people who identified as Catholic in the most recent census probably fall into the a la carte category.

My own children attend Catholic schools. That wasn’t a conscious decision; they’re the local schools. They will make, or have made, their Communion and Confirmations. They do religious instruction up to sixth year, although as they get older, it’s more like pastoral care. Separately, learning about religions of the world is a compulsory subject for Junior Cycle. Preparation for the sacraments only recently came out of the classroom and was taken over by the parish, meaning parents have to do the preparation themselves. I was in favour of this, because I felt it meant that no child would feel excluded, even though on a personal level, it suited me when the sacraments used to take place within school. However, I could never be okay with something that excludes some children.

Still, I’m not convinced the calls for religious instruction to be completely removed from schools are echoed by parents as a whole. And I don’t believe the majority of parents opt for their children to receive the sacraments out of a sense of obligation; in many cases, I think the parents are making an active choice.

When our school stopped doing preparation for the sacraments, it gave us a clear insight into just how much the teachers were doing for us – something that is both a bonus and a difficulty. Now, while I’m glad no child is left out, there is not the same sense of connection and even warmth when preparation for the sacraments was part of our schools. And the word in the pews is lots of parents aren’t particularly keen on the new arrangement. “I think they’re trying to convince us not to go ahead with Communion,” one parent said, following a presentation for parents that appeared to suggest an all-or-nothing approach to Catholicism.

In spite of having to do the preparation ourselves, the majority of parents are still going ahead with the sacraments. Curious, I asked parents on social media what they thought about religious instruction happening in schools. Plenty felt it was time for religion to go, but equally, there were lots who wanted it to stay. Some said they’d chosen Catholic schools very deliberately for their children to have a Catholic religious education. Others explained that even though they weren’t particularly religious themselves, they liked the messages of kindness, love and tolerance that they said their children learned during religion class. There was a lot of nuance in the responses. Many of the same people who said they’d prefer religion to remain within the school repeatedly expressed a difficulty with the idea of confession and sinning children. Things were far from perfect in their eyes, but still their preference was for the status quo. If we could find a way to include religious instruction within the classroom that didn’t lead to the exclusion of some, I believe the majority would like it to continue.

As my children progress through the school system, they’re also learning about different religions. In a world where religion sadly divides almost as much as it unites communities, these are important lessons in understanding and tolerance.

Jen Hogan is an Irish Times parenting columnist