Separating religions and schools is not democratic


OPINION:IN HIS article, “State funded schools must be separate from religions” (Opinion and Analysis, December 17th), Dr Ronan McCrea of the University of Reading launches a swingeing attack on religious schools. It is one of many such unjust attacks that have occurred since the publication of the Murphy report, writes JOHN MURRAY

Dr McCrea wants to replace church-run schools with State-run schools. He says only State-run schools are religiously neutral and therefore truly democratic. He also claims the school system in Ireland violates the right to religious freedom under international law because it includes publicly funded religious schools.

To back his latter claim, he cites international law. But he does so in a highly selective manner. For example, he completely ignores what international law says about the rights of parents in regard to the education of their children.

In fact, their rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (from article 26). Our own Constitution recognises this same right (in article 42).

The fact is that a substantial number of the Irish people have long supported, and continue to support, religious schools as part of our publicly funded education system. This is not a purely Irish situation; it is the same in other countries too. In Britain, for example, 7,000 publicly funded schools are run by a religion (in this case, usually the Church of England).

Internationally, it is recognised that parents have a special responsibility and right, as the primary educators of their children, to raise them in light of their values and worldview, and that society, through the State, should support this.

Parents like me who support denominational schools, do not wish to deny others their choice of a non-Catholic denominational, multi-denominational or non-denominational school. (Nor do we want non-religious students to be forced to attend religious instruction in denominational schools.)

It is Ronan McCrea and people like him who wish on principle to deny any and all religious parents the choice of a religious school. How genuinely democratic is that?

How can anyone think he is favouring religious freedom by calling for religions to be excluded from State-funded schools, thereby forcing all religious parents to send their children to schools that exclude their most personal and deeply held religious values and beliefs (unless they have the money to send their children to fee-paying schools)? Does anyone really think this is religiously neutral?

Clearly, Dr McCrea is not neutral towards religion; in fact, he has only very negative things to say about it.

Bishops have been the main target of the critics of religious schools (which in practice means Catholic schools mostly). The bishops deserve criticism, and one can only hope that they will respond to all reasonable and just criticism quickly and thoroughly in all relevant areas, including education.

But we should not make the mistake of thinking that denominational schooling is a matter of only the hierarchy and priests. Catholic schools are run mainly by lay people. Are these lay people, in their thousands, to be accused of supporting evil?

Like many Irish parents, I send my children to Catholic schools, and do so happily. One reason I do so is that I want them to cherish their religious heritage and tradition, and to see it as a source of high moral ideals and patriotism. Catholics can be good citizens and good people because of their religion – and not in spite of it.

Rather than helping us to face up to the real and shocking failures of the church in the past, disproportionate attacks on religion and on Catholicism in particular, precisely because they are disproportionate, only serve to muddy the waters and sow division and discord.

Honesty and integrity in face of the failures of the church has to include the resignation of those in authority who covered up the abuses, as well as the just punishment of all those who engaged in, or aided and abetted, child abuse.

Nevertheless, it is unjust to use those scandals to deprive ordinary Catholic parents of their right to send their children to State-funded schools of their own denomination.

Dr John Murray lectures in theology in the Mater DeiInstitute of Education, of which the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin is the patron, and is a board member of the Iona Institute, which seeks to promote the place of marriage and religion in society, and to defend the continued existence of publicly funded denominational schools