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Non-religious parents are being discriminated against by our outdated school system

Children who are not baptised are discriminated against by Irish national schools (despite the taxpayer funding these schools).

DISCRIMINATION IS A strong word but a word that accurately describes the enrolment policy in many of our primary schools. The sad fact is that the State allows schools to discriminate against children who are not baptised. And who funds these schools? Is it the churches who want only their own baptised pupils enrolled? No, these schools are funded by the State – and that of course means us, the taxpayers.

This is not something new, something the State has only become aware of recently. The UN Human Rights Committee has been on this case for many years. In an extract from the report of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Geneva, July 2008) it noted with concern that the vast majority of Ireland’s primary schools are privately run denominational schools that have adopted a religious integrated curriculum, thus depriving many parents and children who so wish to have access to secular primary education.

The report went on to say that “the State party should increase its efforts to ensure that non-denominational primary education is widely available in all regions of the State party, in view of the increasingly diverse and multi-ethnic composition of the State party”.

The government is choosing to ignore this issue

In the seven years since this report the number of openly non-religious people in Ireland has increased dramatically, leading to the problem we are faced with today. And the government has chosen to ignore this.

The Humanist Association of Ireland has launched a campaign to highlight this great injustice in Irish society. Billboards have been appearing around the country stating: “Most state-funded schools discriminate against children who are not baptised” and asking, if you believe in an equal right to education, to text EQUAL to 51000.

This initiative follows a meeting between the Humanist Association of Ireland and the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education & Skills when the question was asked: “how can it be all right to pressurise parents into doing something totally against their conscience, ie having their child baptised, simply in order to get them enrolled in the local state-funded school?” The Minister responded that a variety of school options were being offered to meet the needs of a diverse demographic. This is simply not good enough.

There just aren’t enough non-denominational schools

Ireland is no longer a country where everyone is religious or gives the appearance of being so. Last year one third of couples getting married had non-religious ceremonies. I think it’s reasonable to ask: what sort of schools do these parents want for their children?

Many such couples would opt for Educate Together schools but there just aren’t enough of them. And it’s not an option to simply allow things to change slowly – there are parents trying to get places for their children now and being told “no, not unless you produce a baptismal certificate”.

Change is always a challenge but it is up to our government to manage it. The new Children and Family Relationships Bill is a good example of recognising a new reality in Ireland and putting legislation together to deal with it. Something similar needs to be done in the area of Primary Education as the new reality is simply not being recognised.

The original intent of our school system

When our National School system was set up in 1831 it was to be a secular system where all children would be educated together. What a wonderful aspiration! But look how it ended up. In years to come people will look back in disbelief and exclaim: “you mean in the old days in Ireland Protestants and Catholics were educated separately?”

The widespread practice in Ireland of “pragmatic baptisms” shows our country in a very poor light. A recent Ipsos MRBI poll found that 93% of parents with young children have had their children christened whereas the percentage of parents who regularly bring their children to Mass is much lower (36%).

This is easy to understand as we all know of parents being coerced into bringing their child to be baptised and then not appearing in the church again until first Holy Communion.

Unfair to children and offensive to religious people

And is it not grossly offensive for sincere Christians to see young children being baptised simply in order to get a piece of paper to be used as a bargaining chip? In years to come these stories will be told along with the tales of famine soup-kitchens providing sustenance only for those willing to profess a certain faith – whatever about the truth of these tales the requirement for baptismal certificates is very real.

As we approach 2016 much is being asked of how we’re doing as a republic. How fair and equal are we as a society? We’ve come a long way and equality has been won for most sections of society. But children of non-religious parents are still being discriminated against and this is totally unacceptable and must be addressed urgently.

Brian Whiteside is the Director of the Humanist Association of Ireland.

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