Last year, a Catholic school punished the child of atheist parents for not taking part in a religious ceremony.
That might seem perfectly normal in the U.S. — it’s a Catholic school, so they get to set their own rules, right? — but this was in Ireland, where 90% of primary schools are run by the Catholic Church even though they receive government funding. There’s an obligation to treat all students equally even if they’re not Catholic. So the punishment was a problem.
Here’s what happened: Students at the Yellow Furze National School were told they would receive a “homework pass,” allowing them to skip an assignment, if they sang during the school’s First Communion ceremony. An atheist parent complained about this because her child was effectively being punished for not promoting Catholicism even though he should have been able to opt out of the event without consequence. The school denied any wrongdoing since all children were allowed to sing in the choir… as if allowing Muslims and atheists to promote Catholicism was a form of equality.
The ruling is likely to have implications for Catholic schools — which make up 90 per cent of primary schools — in how they organise religious events and incentivise children to attend them.
By maintaining it is appropriate to award a benefit to children to attend a religious ceremony, the commission found that the school “does not appreciate this action had an adverse effect on students who are not of a Catholic faith”.
The commission awarded a sum of €5,000 in respect of discriminatory treatment and ordered the school to review its policies to ensure it complies with the provisions of the Equal Status Acts.
Atheist Ireland celebrated the decision:
This is the first time that a parent has decided that enough is enough, and has taken a case to the Workplace Relations Commission. The outcome shows that inclusion, diversity and respect for minorities are not part of a Catholic ethos.
Whatever about the church, it is difficult to understand how teachers could treat a family in this manner. Teacher training colleges are clearly failing, as they have trained teachers to believe that this discriminatory behaviour is acceptable. That is because the Catholic Church still has a lot of control and influence in teacher training colleges.
The group’s Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly added in an emailed statement:
You have a constitutional right to attend any school without attending religious classes or ceremonies. This ruling shows that schools cannot get around that right by punishing children who don’t take part in religion.
For years, schools just directly forced children into religious classes and ceremonies. When parents complained to Atheist Ireland about this, we have always succeeded in getting the schools to back down.
Now schools are trying to make it harder to exercise your right to opt out of religion. They tell you to go to another school, or sit at the back of the religion class, or use rewards and punishments like this. That’s not what homework is for, and it’s not what religion is for.
In a country where the Church retains overwhelming influence, it’s good to have these reminders that foisting religion on kids, or bribing them in this case, is still unacceptable behavior.
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