Parents suing over teaching of religion being unreasonable, says school board

Dublin, Ireland - A couple who are intending to sue their child’s former national school over the teaching of religion are being “unreasonable”, the school’s chairman has said.

Ken Kiernan and his partner Alma Carey-Zuniga withdrew their now seven-year-old son from Annacurra national school in Aughrim, Co Wicklow, two years ago, claiming the school did not honour its commitment to exclude him from Catholic teaching.

They intend to take a constitutional challenge against the school and the Department of Education.

Parish priest Fr James Hamill, chairman of the board of management, said it had made attempts to cater for the boy by moving religious instruction to the end of the day so he could be picked up early.

However, the couple’s demands would have excluded the saying of grace before meals, prayers before or after class, nativity plays and carol singing because their child could not be left unsupervised.

“They wanted to upend our normal structures to suit them and we couldn’t do this. You couldn’t guarantee that in a normal atmosphere in a Catholic school,” he said.

The child is now in the Wicklow town Educate Together national school, 30km away.

His parents constitutional challenge will be based on article 42, which guarantees to respect the “inalienable right and duty” of parents to provide for the education of their children.

They also cite article 40.3.1, which states that the State guarantees in its laws to “respect . . . and defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen”.

The child was enrolled in junior infants in September 2008, but was withdrawn in December.

Though he was exempted from formal religious instruction, which was held from 12pm to 12.25pm daily, the parents maintain religion was so integral to the school it was impossible to avoid informal instruction in Catholic doctrine.

“What became apparent to us is that there was so much religious instruction going on. We wrote to Batt O’Keeffe [then minister for education] to say that we did not know how much time was left over for instruction in anything else,” Ms Carey-Zuniga said.

The couple wrote repeatedly to the board of management, the National Education Welfare Board and the Department of Education requesting meetings, without success.

In June 2009 the board of management formally adopted a policy that described it as a Catholic school providing instruction within the “doctrines, practices and tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.”

It also stated those who wished their children to opt out of formal religious instruction must agree to make “alternative arrangements to supervise their children”.

Mr Kiernan said they are not atheists and do not have a problem with the teaching of religions academically, but they objected to their child being instructed in a faith that they did not believe in.