Religious Education in Schools Remains a Contentious Subject

Arshdeep Kaur looks into the controversial issue of religious education in schools.

The Welsh Government’s action to remove parents’ right to withdraw their children from classes on religion and sex education has stirred up major controversy. 

As part of a new school curriculum set to be introduced in 2022, lessons on relationships, sexuality and religion shall be compulsory for all pupils, notwithstanding parental objection. Currently, parents can request their children do not take part in them. The new curriculum was described by Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams as a “big cultural change.”

Citing examples, Sir Malcolm Evans, a member of the Commission on Religious Education and Professor of Law at Bristol University stated that removing the opt-out for religious education could be in violation of human rights. He said that if lessons are not “sufficiently inclusive, plural, critical and objective", they are likely to face legal challenges and could see the Welsh Government being dragged to court. 

In light of this development, it is vital to consider the role of religion within Irish schools. The domination of the public education system by the Catholic Church is a well-known fact. However, there are clear signs of its waning influence: The removal of the ‘baptism barrier’, along with school divestment, the abolition of Rule 68, which gave religion a privileged status at the primary level, and rising enrollments in multi-denominational schools are all indicative of a broader cultural change in society. 

In line with human rights law, Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution provides for the right to opt-out of religious instruction at school. However, those seeking exemption find it extremely difficult to do so, and more often than not, schools’ religious ethos is to blame. Moreover, students who opt-out often face stigmatisation and feel left out, as they are visibly segregated from their peers. 

Proposals such as introducing alternative subjects for those opting out of religious instruction, or formulating an inclusive curriculum on religious beliefs and ethics have been put forward in the past, but none have seen the light of day. Hence, these issues are bound to remain alive in the Irish context for the foreseeable future.