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Parents must be at centre of debate on religious teaching

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SO, you're all agreed. The Catholic Church should not have a veto over who gets to teach the Catholic faith in State-run primary schools. Nor, one presumes, should the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterians, the Pentecostals, the Muslims or any other religious group.

But can we also agree that they should at least have a say?

This would seem reasonable. If a Church of Ireland child is to be taught the faith of the Church of Ireland in a State-run school it would surely amount to towering arrogance on the part of the State not to give the Church of Ireland any say in the matter?

The future of religion in our schools was back in the frame this week with the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) condemning the Catholic Church for allegedly seeking the final say over who gets to teach Catholicism in the proposed State-run primary schools. The Church says it sought no veto.

These schools, which will be under the patronage of the VEC on behalf of the State, are a natural, understandable and entirely defensible response to the fact that fewer people want denominational schools than in the past, or else want a greater variety of faith-based schools made available to them.

Patronage

This new model of primary school patronage gives rise to two very important questions. First, should religion be taught in these schools at all? Secondly, if it is, how should it be taught?

The answer to question one is, emphatically, yes. If religion is not taught in these schools then parents who want their children to be taught the tenets of their faith during school hours will simply keep their children away from the new State-run schools and send them elsewhere. This would defeat the whole purpose of these schools, which is to expose children from different backgrounds and different faiths to one another in the interests of social integration.

As to the second question, how should religion be taught, there are three basic options. One is to teach the children their own religion separately and during school hours. The second is to teach them a generic religion course, and the third is to teach them their separate religions outside of school time, but on the school premises.

Let's dismiss option three straight away because this is simply a small variation on the option not to teach religion in the school at all. All sorts of things get taught on school property after school hours and no-one thinks they are part of the school curriculum. So allowing the various faiths to be taught on school property, but after school hours, de facto pushes religion out of the school.

The second option, teaching a generic religion course, might please some parents but it will anger others. For one thing, it might implicitly teach that all religions are basically the same, which they clearly are not. But it would again mean that those parents who want their children to be taught their specific faith during school hours would keep their children away from these State-run schools, again defeating the goal of social integration.

So it looks like there is little practical alternative to teaching the various religions to the various sets of children during school hours, and if the faith of the Catholic Church, or the Church of Ireland, or of the Muslims is to be taught, then the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Muslims must be consulted about the matter. Otherwise the State is saying it is up to it how religion gets taught. This would have the effect of alienating religious believers from the State, hardly something conducive to social integration.

Of course at this point, from stage-left, come those who cry 'segregation!' When pupils in a secondary school divide up into their various groups to learn French or Italian or Spanish, they are merely being separated.

But if they go their various ways to learn their various religions they are being 'segregated', as though it is being done against their will, or against the will of their parents. This is scare-mongering and needs to be treated as such. In fact, the general accusation that faith-based schools are inherently 'segregationist' and 'socially-divisive' is scare-mongering. It treats religion, de facto, as a threat to the common good, something to be tolerated (barely), rather than actively approved and certainly not something that should receive any funding from the State irrespective of what parents might want.

And what parents want must be at the centre of this debate. What parents want should be the main, although not the only, determinant of our education system. Otherwise the State would be given far too much say over how their children are educated. In the matter of our schools the State must be our servant, not our master. Within certain limits, our schools must reflect the choices of parents, including their choice as to how their children should be taught religion.