Written Answers. - Religious Education.

Nora Owen

Question:

352 Mrs. Owen asked the Minister for Education and Science the position of a child in a post-primary school who does not wish to participate in religious knowledge classes; the arrangements, if any, a school should make for such a child; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3978/99]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

358 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Education and Science the policy of his Department in relation to pupils attending second level schools receiving State finance where the pupil and the family of that pupil do not wish the pupil to attend a religion class and where the school authorities require all pupils to either study one or a variety of religions; and his views in relation to the best course of action to be taken in this situation. [3996/99]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 352 and 358 together.

The constitutional and legal rights of students to attend schools without attending classes in religious instruction is beyond doubt. Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution provides, among other provisions, that legislation providing for State aid for schools shall not affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school. This provision is supported by other constitutional provisions, notably Article 42 relating to the primary role of parents as the educators of their children and their rights in respect of any violation of their conscience.

These constitutional guarantees are supported by statutory provisions enacted both before and after the adoption of the Constitution. Section 7 of the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act, 1878, provides for the withholding of State funding from schools where pupils receive religious instruction which has not been sanctioned by the parents or guardians of a pupil. This provision is given a modern restatement and support in the Education Act, 1998. Section 15 of the Act requires school management authorities to have regard to the principles and requirements of a democratic society and have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life in society. In addition, section 30(2)(e) provides that the Minister for Education and Science, in prescribing the curriculum for schools shall not require a student to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of his or her parent or of the student where he or she is 18 or over. Both of these provisions will come into effect in the near future when I make a commencement order in respect of the sections in which they are included, after necessary planning and consultation has been completed.

The position in law therefore is quite clear and as far as my Department is concerned so is the position in practice. The teaching of religion in schools must be conducted in a manner, which allows children, who do not wish to attend religious instruction, to avail themselves of an otherwise full education without exposure to religious instruction. The precise arrangements to be made are a matter for the individual school and my Department will advise and, as far as practicable, assist any school which experiences any difficulties. My Department will also inquire into any case where it is alleged that the school's responsibilities in this matter are not being fulfilled.