The Irish Times - December 17, 2009
State-funded schools must be separate from religions
ANALYSIS: THE ANNOUNCEMENT that the Saudi Arabian government will seek to open a school in Ireland brings into sharp focus problems inherent in the relationship between religious groups and our education system, writes RONAN McCREA
Irish education, though largely State-funded is, for the most part, controlled by religious organisations. More than 90 per cent of primary schools, for example, operate under the patronage of the local bishop.
The religious patrons of these schools have the right to promote the religious ethos of their school. This ethos can cover the use of prayer during the school day and the presence in classrooms of religious symbols such as the crucifix, whose presence in Italian state schools has recently been held to violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
EU employment law has provided an exemption from the principle of non-discrimination in employment to allow these schools to discriminate against staff in order to protect their religious identity. This exemption was inserted into Directive 2000/78 largely at the behest of the Irish Government.
There are, of course, limits on the power of religious organisations within the education system. The state has the right to insist on certain educational standards and can prescribe the curriculum to be followed. Nevertheless, the current nature of the role of religion within the Irish educational system is extremely problematic.
First, the State’s approach undermines the rights of parents and pupils to religious freedom. By using State money to fund religious schools and failing to provide for a religiously neutral alternative, the State effectively requires those of minority or no faith to receive their education in a context where a particular faith, with which parents or pupils may disagree, is exalted and actively promoted.
The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled in the Lautsi case that to require children to be educated in classrooms where crucifixes were displayed violated their right not to be subject to state-sponsored religious proselytism in the education system.
The reality of the Irish educational system goes way beyond the situation condemned as a breach of religious freedom in Lautsi.
Not only does our system violate our European obligations, it is also contrary to any reasonable reading of Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution, which says: “Legislation providing State aid for schools . . . shall not be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.”
By permitting entrenched religions to run schools, the State cannot refuse the requests of religious groups, which may promote values contrary to liberal and democratic norms, to run Irish schools.
Almost all religions, including mainstream Christian faiths, have controversial views on matters such as gender and sexuality. However, Wahhabi Islam, which is the form of Islam endorsed by the Saudi government, includes teachings which contravene the basic norms of democratic societies.
The Saudi regime does not permit the construction in Saudi Arabia of any non-Islamic religious structures, actively subjugates women, and advocates the death penalty for homosexuality or for leaving the Islamic faith.
Saudi-funded schools in other countries have repeatedly been criticised for promoting prejudice against non-Muslims and anti-Semitism.
The idea that the Irish education system could become a vehicle for the transmission of these norms is abhorrent.
Our system of denominational control of education makes it difficult for the State to refuse an application to establish a school from a government which actively supports gender apartheid, homophobia and suppression of religious freedom. If Catholics are free to establish State-funded schools, why not Wahhabi Muslims?
The only solution is for the State to realise that the publicly funded education system is no place for the promotion of particular religions. Only a religiously neutral State education system can protect the education system from becoming a vehicle through which democratic values are undermined.
Furthermore, the separation of religious and State education systems will also protect the free conscience rights of religions which may otherwise be forced by the State to promote, through their schools, ideas such as gender equality in which some of them may not believe.
It is perhaps inevitable that in the longer term our European human rights commitments will force us to live up to the values of our own Constitution in the area of religion and education. It would be better for the Government to take steps to embrace religious freedom for pupils, parents and religious organisations by establishing a religiously neutral system, rather than to have change imposed from the outside.
A new system would avoid the shocking scenario of the promotion in this State of the anti-democratic illiberal values of the Saudi monarchy.
Ronan McCrea, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, lectures in law at the University of Reading
This article was found at:
The Irish Times - December 21, 2009
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 Dei Institute 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
This article was found at: