In Ireland, where the fastest growing “religious” demographic happens to be people with no religious affiliation, the government is taking a major step in secularizing the default-Catholic school system: They will soon be phasing out Christianity as the default option in many secondary schools.
Say goodbye to Catholic masses at graduation.
Say goodbye to crosses in the classroom.
And say goodbye to pop-in inspections from Church leaders. (Which is a thing that actually happens.)
The new rules will apply to more than 200 secondary schools run by the State’s Education and Training Boards (ETBs) — formerly vocational schools — which are officially categorised as multidenominational.
The “framework for the recognition of religious belief/identities of all students in ETB schools” outlines steps schools should follow to bring them into line with a multidenominational ethos. They include that any religious symbols on display must echo the beliefs of the wider school community rather than one particular religion. It also means schools that symbolically represent religious celebrations should ensure balance, such as a school displaying a crib at Christmas but also Islamic symbols for Eid.
It’s a start. There are roughly 70 ETB schools that won’t have to abide by these rules because they have contracts with the Catholic Church. It’s also not clear how long this phase-out process will last. It’s also bizarre how much religion creeped into these schools in the first place and unclear what the government is doing to ensure that never happens again.
Balancing religious beliefs leads to a variety of different problems; they would be better off just leaving religion out of school — other than the academic study of it.
Atheist Ireland issued this statement reacting to the unpublished document listing the changes, pointing out that the proposed rules still exclude non-theistic perspectives.
This draft document shows that some people within the system recognise that things have to change. We already had evidence of this two years ago, when the Department of Education, after lobbying by Atheist Ireland, instructed ETB schools that they have to give an alternative subject to students who do not attend religious instruction. But in that case the ETBs resisted the change, and the Government withdrew the instruction.
The same thing is happening here. The draft document says that they want to operate a multi-denominational ethos, and that this will make the curriculum suitable for everybody. But atheism is not a denomination, and these new changes would not protect the rights of atheists. Also, it is only a draft document and does not in any way reflect the reality on the ground.
In recent years Atheist Ireland has empowered parents to stand up for their constitutional right to not attend religious instruction in these schools. But the ETBs are now trying to undermine that right by claiming that it only applies to religious instruction according to the rites of one religion. There is no legal basis for this opinion. It is not based on any case law and seems to have been just made up.
Atheist Ireland has recently obtained a legal opinion from a barrister on our constitutional rights in this regard, and that is the basis of our political lobbying at the moment. We need to have our rights vindicated in practice, not to read draft documents that seem to sound inclusive but still isolate atheist families.
If the government’s goal was to end the criticisms, they messed up. They have a long way to go before this issue is resolved, and the longer they try to placate religious perspectives, the longer this process will take.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Andrey for the link)