The State and school patronage

Sir, – The transfer of patronage of schools is more complicated than suggested by Joe Humphreys's article ("How the Catholic Church could solve the school patronage problem", Opinion & Analysis, July 27th).

The Vatican II Declaration on Christian Education, which says that “parents should enjoy the fullest liberty in their choice of school”, supports his main point.

But in the Irish context this is not just a matter of Catholic schools versus state schools. Irish society is increasingly pluralistic, with increasing numbers of religions.

In a free society different groups have a right to make distinctive offerings, provided they are not damaging the common good. Government needs to promote the value of tolerant pluralism, not intolerant secularism.

Whatever the state of the discussions on patronage, the question of religious freedom for the remaining Catholic schools is at the core.

The Catholic Church’s view of religious freedom includes “respect both for the rights of others and for [our] own duties towards others and for the common welfare of all”.

There are grounds for concern about the ever-increasing reach of Government into the lives of people and the likelihood of its infringing on religious liberty in the running of the remaining Catholic schools.

Cardinal Pell identified four basic points on what religious freedom for the remaining Catholic schools means in practice. Freedom of religion means freedom to go to church on Sundays or pray at home, being free to act on personal beliefs in the public square, to speak about them and seek to persuade others.

Second, it means being free to provide services that are consistent with the beliefs of the sponsoring religion.

Third, it means being able to employ at least a critical mass of employees who support the ethos of the sponsoring religion. All Catholic works and institutions are first and foremost works of religion and are established because this is what faith in Christ impels. It is essential that a preference can be exercised for people who are actively committed to the religious convictions at the heart of these services.

Finally, the secular state has no mandate to exclude religion, especially when a large majority of the population are Christians or followers of other major religions who also pay taxes.

Substantial levels of government funding are no reason to prohibit religious schools from offering services compatible with their beliefs, nor a sufficient reason to coerce them to act against their principles. – Yours, etc,

NEIL BRAY,

Cappamore,

Co Limerick.

Sir, – Ireland has long had a political “nod and wink” culture of pretending that certain laws don’t mean what they say. We must overcome this if we are to develop a school system that respects equally the human rights of all children, parents and teachers.

Amy Mulvihill of Educate Together (July 31st) highlights that Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools states that "of all parts of a school curriculum, Religious Instruction is by far the most important" and that "a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school".

But Educate Together schools are also legally obliged to implement Rule 68. It applies to all national schools, not merely those with a Catholic patron body. And it says that “a religious spirit”, not “the prescribed ethos”, should permeate the entire school day in all schools.

There are four ways in which the Irish education system violates the human rights of atheists and religious minorities.

The first is religious discrimination in access to schools (Section 7.3(c) of the Equal Status Act).

The current Admissions to Schools Bill claims to address this, but it retains the right of schools to discriminate on the ground of religion, using the euphemism “lawful oversubscription criteria”.

The second is the integrated religious curriculum (Section 15.2(b) of the Education Act, Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, and the Primary School Curriculum).

This is even worse than the access problem as, even if you get access, your child can still be evangelised against your wishes.

The third is religious discrimination in employment (Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act).

The current Bacik Bill will address this for LGBT teachers, but it retains the right of schools to discriminate against teachers who are atheist or the wrong religion.

The fourth is the patron system itself, through which the State cedes control of our schools to private bodies which the State then funds to discriminate against its own citizens. Even the Oireachtas Education Committee has found that the patron system leads to segregation and inequality in schools.

In recent years, pressure from Atheist Ireland and others to reverse these human rights violations has increased. In response, the State is now claiming, for the first time, that it is constitutionally obliged to allow religious schools, even when funded by the State, to discriminate against children, parents and teachers.

While the State accepts that it is bound by UN human rights treaties, it insists that it is not bound by the recommendations of the UN bodies that oversee those treaties. And it has negotiated an exemption from the EU employment equality directive, specifically to protect religious discrimination in schools.

Atheist Ireland will continue to lobby, both in Ireland and at the UN, for a secular State education system that respects everybody equally, in which the curriculum is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralist manner. It now seems that this may need another referendum. Yes to equality for atheists. – Yours, etc,

MICHAEL NUGENT,

Chairman,

JANE DONNELLY,

Human Rights Officer,

Atheist Ireland,

Drumcondra,

Dublin 9.