On the early morning of December 27, 2010, the recently-appointed Hogan J ordered, following a brief hearing from his home, the administration of a blood transfusion to a three month-old baby, ‘AB’, against the wishes of his parents. As committed Jehovah’s Witnesses, they opposed the procedure on grounds of religious belief, but it was necessary to save the child’s life. In his judgment Hogan J considered the requirement of Article 34.1 of the Constitution that justice be administered in public “save in such special and limited cases as may be prescribed by law.” More significantly, perhaps, he also considered the scope and limits of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion (Article 44.2.1) as it applies to religiously-motivated parental conduct relating to the education and care of children. The extent to which constitutional freedom of religion may protect parental action or inaction deemed harmful in some respect to children is a rather under-explored area of Irish law. The better-beaten doctrinal path is the Article 42.5 test of “moral and physical” parental failure enabling the State to override the protection accorded to the Family by Articles 41 and 42 of the Constitution – a ground also considered, in conjunction with the religion ground, in this rather short judgment.
Increasing attention has focused, in recent years, on the position of religious freedom and non-discrimination rights within what may broadly be termed as the “patronage” model in Irish education. For complex historical reasons, the Irish state has never developed a system of direct provision of public education, through secular and public schools owned and operated by local authorities, as is typically the case in other European states.
By the patronage model, I mean the system implicitly foreseen and mandated by Article 42.4, which provides that the State “shall provide for” free primary education, that is, by supporting and recognising schools owned and operated by private – almost exclusively religious – bodies. This is given legislative expression in the Education Act 1998, which empowers the Minister for Education to recognise and fund schools whose Boards of Management are accountable to private “patrons”, typically clerics, in upholding the “characteristic spirit” or ethos of recognised schools. Thus, Ireland has historically rejected a “one-size-fits-all” model of universal secular education, and instead has partitioned the public education function over public and private spheres, with the dimensions of funding and curriculum reserved to the State, and those of ownership and ethos devolved to private intermediary bodies, which are purported to represent the different religious and other conscientious beliefs prevailing in society. Continue reading “Right to Learn: Daly on Patronage and power relations in public education: the case of Protestant schools”
In the Dáil yesterday, Labour TD Ruairí Quinn asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan (left), whether she would establish a national forum on religious patronage of primary schools. The response was a negative one, with the Minister indicating that such a forum would be nothing more than a protracted talking shop from which no decisions would be likely to emerge. She also indicated that the Department of Education is considering ten locations where demographic changes suggest that religious patronage ought to be revisited. (Irish Times report). It seems to me, that in suggesting that the continuation of the patronage of the Catholic Church and the demographics of an area served by the particular school are somehow connected, the Minister is missing the point.
In any modern and secular society we have to ask questions about the desirability of religious involvement in the primary mechanism of education, which all children are constitutionally entitled to and which, in many areas, is the only state-provided primary education available. This is not a matter of demographics; it is and should be a matter of principle. Do we, as a society, believe that the provision of primary education is the role of the State? If so, do we believe that the State and religion ought not to be conflated? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, there is no justification for saying that the patronage of our national schools ought to remain with one particular—or indeed any—church. This is not the same thing as saying that faith-based education ought not to be supported by the State. In fact, I see nothing problematic about State support for faith-based education provided it is (a) provided as an alternative to non-denominational education, and (b) available for a variety of religious faiths. The difficulty is with saying that virtually all primary education is to be faith based, as is currently the case in Ireland. Continue reading “Primary Schools and Religious Patronage: Democracy or Demographics?”