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Equality in the Classroom: Education Equality, a new initiative aimed at preventing religious discrimination in Irish schools

By Brian Cunningham / December 23, 2015

With the same-sex marriage referendum passing in May, much talk has centered around 2015 being the year in which Irish society moved towards values of diversity and inclusiveness.  Nevertheless, concern still exists among Irish people in regards to access, inclusion, and diversity in certain institutions.  One organisation which is striving for change is Education Equality, who are calling for greater access and inclusion in Irish schools regardless of a person’s religious beliefs. 

Beginning in the summer when a group of like-minded people came together, Education Equality had its official launch earlier this month.  The organisation is calling for an end to religious discrimination in state-funded schools, which manifests itself in numerous ways. April Duff, one of Education Equality’s committee members, spoke of the organisations primary goals.

“We have a multifaceted approach, but I guess there are two main objectives which we are trying to achieve”, says April.  “Firstly, we are calling for equal access to education.  By that we mean no person should be refused admission to a school on the basis of their religion.  Secondly, we are calling for equal respect during school hours.  This means that students should not be obliged to follow any religious instruction during school hours. For example, there should be no prayer sessions during class; rather, there should be a separate praying session at the end of class hours, which students can attend if they want to.”

The first objective finds its roots in a common problem in Irish society,  where over 96 % of Irish primary schools are controlled by religious patrons, who are mainly Catholic. There have been numerous incidents over the years in which students have been refused admission to many of these schools on the basis of their religion, or for simply not having any religious belief.  One example is the son of Education Equality committee member Nikki Murphy, who comes from Terenure in South Dublin.  Nikki’s eldest son Reuben was due to start school in 2015, but was refused a place in a total of nine different schools due to the fact he was never baptised.  Further examples exist on the official Education Equality website, where people document their stories of religious based discrimination in Irish schools.

While many of those who are refused admission come from atheist or secular backgrounds, the organisation is keen to stress that they do not see themselves as ‘secular’, but simply want equality for persons of all religious beliefs.  April stresses this point by saying:  “There have been other instances in which Hindu’s, Muslims, etc,  were refused admission to Irish schools on the basis of their religion.  We are calling for an accessible and inclusive education system for people of all religious beliefs, and also for those who don’t have any religious belief.”

The organisation sees religious discrimination in schools as a human rights issue primarily, but implementing change also requires a legal approach.  April has a background in legal research, and she describes how there are ‘articles in the Irish constitution as well as legislative acts’ which focus on religious non-discrimination and freedom of religion.  There is, however, certain aspects of the law which need changing. One example is ‘Rule 68’, which proposes that religious instruction is the most important part of the day in an Irish primary school.  There is also Section 7 (3) (c) of the Equal status act 2000-2011, which allows certain schools to admit only those who practice a particular religion.  Education Equality’s aim is to lobby the government and politicians to change the law, and they also plan a constitutional challenge against Section 7 (3) (c) of the Equal status act.

Aside from this, the organisation also plans to run a number of public awareness campaigns and to educate others on their work.  “We have so many things planned for 2016, and we hope our work will empower others” says April.  “With the right attitude we are confident we can soon make this badly needed change to our education system.”

Visit the official Education Equality Website at http://educationequality.ie/

Have you faced religious discrimination in an Irish school, or know of someone who has?  If so, check out the ’30 days, 30 stories’ on the Education Equality website.  Here people tell their own personal accounts of discrimination in the Irish education system.  If you or someone you know has a story to tell, please click on the following link: http://educationequality.ie/index.php/category/30days30stories/

Follow Education Equality on Twitter at https://twitter.com/edu_equal?lang=en or ‘like’ their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/EdEquality/

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Brian Cunningham

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