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Time to separate Church and State in Education

Posted on July 27, 2018 at 10:49 AM

lf-dec17-aorOriginally published on the Journal.ie, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin writes asking, if the constitution is the problem, then the models previously used such as the Citizens' Assembly should be utilised to address how we end religious control of education in Ireland

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After the resounding success of the ‘Repeal the 8th’ campaign, the question is already being asked: what next?

Housing, education, poverty and health are constant struggles for Irish political life to get to grips with. For me the cause of overhauling our drug policy is central to how we show compassion and end stigma for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

But these issues do not require constitutional change to be dealt with effectively. The next constitutional cause must be to break religious influence over education, and I feel the Citizens Assembly model is the best way to address it.

Religious patronage

The vast majority of our schools are under religious patronage, with approximately 98% at primary level. Various attempts have been made over the years to address this including the Labour Party’s establishment of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in 2011.

While soundings from Church authorities have been positive, the actual rate of divestment of schools from religious control to multi-denominational models has been painfully slow. The constitution is the problem.

As Minister of State in the Department of Justice I tackled the infamous Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act which effectively exempted schools from legislation outlawing discriminating against those who might ‘undermine their ethos’ including LGBT teachers, unmarried parents who were teachers and divorced teachers.

When addressing the ‘baptism barrier’ which bars children who aren’t baptised from entering their local schools, Departmental officials are keen to impress on political representatives the limits that to which their efforts we can go. Legislation being debated this week is suspected to face a court challenge. The constitution is the problem.

Baptism barrier

When Louise O’Keeffe, a victim of sexual abuse by a teacher, took her case through the European courts she was chased at every turn by the Department of Education because they refused to accept that they were ultimately responsible. The constitution is the problem.

When trying to drive through initiatives such as anti-homophobic and transphobic bullying policies, free book schemes, uniform policy or the thorny issue of sex education – they have a more difficult path because of the power of patrons. The constitution is the problem.

The reality is that the patrons run the show in Irish education, not the Department and not the Minister. We do not have a State education system – we have a State funded education system which farms out responsibility for the running of schools to patron bodies. They are empowered by various articles in the constitution which have been interpreted as affirming the right of parents to have their children educated through the ethos of their choice.

The offending language in Articles 42 and 44 relating to Education and to Religion are depressingly outdated but they are all the churches need to maintain their influence. Even the article guaranteeing free primary education is deliberately ambiguous – it says the State shall provide ‘for’ free primary education. That word ‘for’ means that someone else can provide it – not necessarily the State.

Why?

So why is it that the overarching principle that underpins our education system is religious? Why are we still separating children on the basis of religion? Is it really worth all of the undermining of employment rights of teachers, and educational rights of parents and children to maintain the status quo?

It is also the reason why so many of our schools are separated by gender, and why competition between schools remains so prevalent which leaves inevitably to inequality in our system.

So if the constitution is the problem, then the models previously used such as the Constitutional Convention and the Citizens Assembly should be utilised to address the issue. The problematic articles are overlapping and complex which potentially conflict with property rights and to freedom of religion. But the conversation is worthy of us because our education system is not fit for the society we live in, and thousands of parents want change.

If the Constitutional Convention helped to deliver Marriage Equality, and the Citizens Assembly helped to Repeal the 8th amendment, then a similar body could help point the way to a modern, secular and equality-based education system for a modern Ireland.

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