The chairman of a national school being sued over the teaching of religion by parents of a former pupil at the school has described the actions of the couple as “unreasonable”.
The couple, who are being assisted in their case by Senator Ivana Bacik (pictured) have claimed that the school did not exclude their child from Catholic religion class, as agreed, but Fr James Hamill, chairman of the board of management of Annacurra National School in Aughrim, Co. Wicklow, said the school made a series of efforts to accommodate the parents wishes.
Ken Kiernan and his partner Alma Carey-Zuniga withdrew their now seven-year-old son from the school two years ago. They plan to take a constitutional challenge against the school and the Department of Education.
However Fr Hamill, chairman of the board of management, said the school 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.
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, he said.
“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.
The child was enrolled in junior infants in September 2008, but was withdrawn in December.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.
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”.
The case, which may also be taken against the Bishop of Ferns in whose diocese the school is located, and the Attorney General, will cite Article 40.3.1 and Article 42 of the Constitution, in addition to Protocol 1, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Article 40.3.1 says that the State guarantees in its laws to “respect . . . and defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen”..
Article 42 acknowledges that parents are "the primary and natural educator of the child" and that the State “shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State”.
Protocol 1, Article 2 of the European Convention says, inter alia, that “the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions”.
The couple want the Department of Education to set out guidelines and procedures to deal with the sort of situation they faced.
They say they do not want to take away from Catholic and other denominational schools the right to display religious symbols or to say prayers during the school day.
Ms Carey-Zuniga said: “Catholic schools should be Catholic. This means a right to say prayers during the school day. I want the State to protect my right to send my child to a school that doesn’t include de facto Catholic education.”