Four ways to end school discrimination against atheists and minority faiths

‘Despite apologies to Derek Walsh, the Government now supports two Bills that reinforce the right of State-funded schools to religiously discriminate’

At a recent meeting with Atheist Ireland, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education personally apologised to atheist parent Derek Walsh, whose child had been refused access to his local school because he is "a category two boy", that is not a Catholic.

At the same meeting, an atheist pupil and teacher described the religious discrimination they faced at school. They stayed out of the group photograph with the Taoiseach and Minister, fearing their schools might find out they had complained.

Irish schools can legally discriminate against atheists and minority faith members. They are State-funded but privately run, 90 per cent by the Catholic Church, most of the rest by other religions.

Despite the apologies to Derek Walsh, the Government now supports two Bills – on admission to schools and employment equality – that reinforce the right of State-funded schools to religiously discriminate.


Policy initiative

Atheist Ireland has launched a policy initiative called the Schools Equality Pact, which outlines the changes needed for a fair education system.

Pact is an acronym for the four areas of change – patronage, access, curriculum and teaching. Changing any one alone will not work. The change has to be made holistically.

Patronage. Children have a right to attend inclusive public schools. State-funded schools should have an inclusive public ethos. Moral education should be separate from religion. The State should not cede control to private patrons. Private ethos schools should be an optional extra, not the basis of the system. Reform should start now in the nine schools where the Minister for Education is patron.

Access: Children should have equal access to their local State-funded school whatever their religion. The current Admission to Schools Bill reinforces the right to religiously discriminate, calling it “lawful oversubscription criteria”. If schools are oversubscribed, priority should go to siblings of pupils, then local children, then a lottery.

Curriculum: Children have a right to an objective pluralist education. They should be taught the State curriculum, including about religions and beliefs in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. Faith formation should be outside the school day. Rule 68 of national schools must go. It says religious instruction is by far the most important subject, and a religious spirit must inform and vivify the whole work of the school.

Teaching: Teachers have an equal right to work in State-funded schools. Children should be taught by the best teachers, and teachers should have equal access, based on merit, to jobs in State-funded schools. The current Section 37 Bill will protect Catholic LGBT teachers, but reinforces discrimination against atheist and minority faith teachers.

All four Pact areas must be tackled together. What specifically needs to change? For patronage, the Education Act. For access, Section 7.3 (c) of the Equal Status Act. For curriculum, the Education Act and Rule 68 of National Schools. For teaching, Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act.

These fundamental changes would respect Articles 42.1, 42.3.1 and 42.3.2 of the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Louise O’Keeffe judgment and the eight warnings from the UN and Council of Europe that our schools breach human rights.


Divesting some religious schools to new private patrons will not achieve pluralism. The


Education Committee

has warned that multiple patronage and ethos can lead to segregation and inequality.

The patronage system forces parents to prioritise somehow finding the best school for their own children. But this can clash with the task of creating a fair public school system. For example, Educate Together now wants the right to prioritise families of its own ethos, regardless of catchment area. But this would discriminate against religious families who live beside an Educate Together school. Discriminating against religious families is as wrong as discriminating against atheist families.

The State has a duty to respect equally the human rights of all children, parents and teachers. This requires a national network of public secular schools, inclusive of all, neutral between religions and atheism, and focused on children’s educational needs.

The Government claims that removing these discriminations would be unconstitutional because the State has an obligation to buttress religion. But there are other opinions about this, including from the Oireachtas Education Committee, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, and the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism.

It is the duty of the Oireachtas to balance competing constitutional rights. It cannot do this if the Government closes down the debate without publishing the legal opinion it is relying on. If it is shown to be unconstitutional to remove the discrimination, then we urgently need a Schools Equality Referendum.

See Michael Nugent is chairperson of Atheist Ireland