State must resolve thorny issue of religious education

OPINION: The selection by a public body of which religious beliefs to accommodate within a pluralist regime may well be unconstitutional…

OPINION:The selection by a public body of which religious beliefs to accommodate within a pluralist regime may well be unconstitutional, writes EOIN DALY

Controversy erupted again last week over the teaching of religion in the new model of “community national school” operated by the Vocational Education Committees.

Piloted in response to an acknowledged need for alternatives to Catholic primary schools, these are the closest equivalent to fully public schools within our system. However, since the idea of wholly secular schools is apparently somewhat taboo, these new schools have been cast as “multifaith” rather than strictly non-denominational.

Therefore, a consensus has developed at official levels that religious instruction should somehow be included in the VEC primary schools, albeit in a pluralist way whereby several religious faiths are recognised.


However, this approach is objectionable on political, pragmatic and ultimately constitutional grounds. Put simply, where a public body attempts to offer religious instruction along “pluralist” lines, it must then make a set of deeply problematic choices as to which religions, and which interpretations of these, are to be included and celebrated.

Since the VEC schools cannot possibly make provisions for all the beliefs and faiths that may exist in the community, this will be inevitably exclusionary – as it is hard to imagine any set of criteria for religious recognition which could be meaningfully fair.

The ideological gloss of “pluralism” may mask what ultimately amounts to a crude numbers game, whereby the most prevalent denominations assert themselves at the expense of more peripheral traditions.

A right to religious education in these contexts is sometimes invoked, but it is necessary to acknowledge a distinction between the claim to be left alone to practise one’s beliefs without interference, and the much broader claim to receive positive recognition of the specificities of one’s faith – to the inevitable exclusion of others – within a publicly-administered school. Whereas public provision of religious instruction is not necessary to religious freedom, the hazards it entails trump any interest in it being provided.

Indeed, the selection by a public body of which religious beliefs to accommodate and recognise within an ostensibly pluralist instruction programme may well be unconstitutional, simply because it may well amount to discrimination on religious grounds.

Under the historical model, the State has recognised and funded different denominational schools using formally neutral, evenhanded criteria – itself a very narrow conception of equality – but religious neutrality is impossible in the composition of a pluralist religious instruction programme. Additionally, any direct role for public bodies in administering religious instruction may be incompatible with the subsidiary role the Constitution envisages for the State in the area of religious education.

But this argument has significance beyond any sterile legal proposition. More broadly, it is inherently problematic to cast any State body in the role of religious arbiter – of making determinations of what religions, and which interpretations of them, are worthy of inclusion in the curriculums of public schools.

Under the historical model of denominational patronage – despite all its flaws – the content of religious instruction is, for all intents and purposes, devolved to the religious bodies themselves. Perhaps the real concern in this regard should be on the part of religions themselves: once we enable public bodies to compose programmes of religious instruction, however benignly intended, we allow the State to arrogate a portion of religious authority to itself.

What version of Islam or humanism are the VEC schools to incorporate? These, arguably, are choices which the organs of a properly democratic state should never be allowed to make.

Many will also object to the idea of segregating young children on sectarian grounds in a publicly-administered school, given that religious distinctions often serve as a proxy for class and race differentiation.

Thus, underlying the soothing language of diversity prevails a cruder reality of power relations. Already, there have been allegations (and sharp denials) of dark subterfuge – essentially, of attempts by Catholic authorities to subvert the pluralist ethos of the new model by seeking a special form of recognition within them. Indeed, the apparent receptiveness of certain figures in the last government, in particular, to Catholic bargaining demands echoes the supine clericalism of the past, on matters of religion and education.

There is a clear alternative to the course being charted, which neither allows the State a difficult role in overseeing and administering religious education, nor amounts to hostility towards religion.

Publicly-administered schools could make their facilities available for privately-organised religious instruction outside school hours, or even adjust their schedules to facilitate this.

Then, the State would continue to accommodate the desire of some parents to have religious instruction provided, but the content and administration of religious instruction could remain appropriately private. The alternative is to allow the State to arrogate to itself a jurisdiction to regulate and instrumentalise religion – any impulse which many will hope could by now have been consigned to the past.

Eoin Daly lectures in constitutional law at DCU