Date: 3 Feb 2011
What happens in a small rural community when the 'village atheist' decides to send his child to the local Catholic school? Last week we found out; he considers taking a human rights case against the school.
Martijn Leenheer is from Holland. He and his wife live in the picturesque Co. Leitrim town of Dromahair. The local school is Drumlease Catholic Primary School.
Leenheer is an atheist and so when he decided to send his five-year-old to the only school in easy reach it was with the understandable stipulation that the child be withdrawn from religion class.
Leenheer probably thought it was problem more or less solved until he discovered that his son stays in class when the school day starts and ends with a short prayer.
He told The Irish Independent last week, he said: ''My belief is that the school should be responsible for supervising children if they want to opt out [of prayer] because the way it stands at the moment, they ask me if I want to opt out, I say, 'yes' and basically nothing happens.''
Here we have something of a conundrum. Leenheer is perfectly within his rights to ask that his child not be exposed to prayer in school. But if his son has to be removed from religion class, and then removed from prayer time twice a day won't that make the child feel very much the 'odd man out'?
So, what's the answer to this? Is it to ban school prayer altogether? To ban religious education altogether? To withdraw all State funding from denominational schools and make them go their own way? In practice, of course, this would force the vast majority of such schools to close down. They would presumably be replaced by State-run non-denominational schools.
This, in effect, is the line taken by organisations like Atheist Ireland. Jane Donnelly, Atheist Ireland's education policy officer described the right to opt out in Irish schools as ''impractical and illusory''.
''In my view we are in breach of our international obligations. The opt-out clause must be practical and it must suit the wishes of parents, but our opt-out clause just sits there in the education act.
''There are no statutory guidelines with it, and it is not sufficient to guarantee the right to respect philosophical viewpoints such as Martijn's,'' she said.
Both Leenheer and Atheist Ireland appear to have the backing in this of a discussion paper issued by the Irish Human Rights Commission in November.
Called 'Religion and Education: A Human Rights Perspective', this paper verges towards seeing freedom of religion as freedom from religion. It therefore leans towards those parents who don't want their children exposed to a religious ethos of any kind at any point during the school day. It wonders if this is possible when a child is attending a school permeated with such an ethos, as any denominational school must be.
Furthermore, it wonders whether this lack of protection for non-religious parents puts us in breach of human rights law.
Two vitally important points must be made in response. The first is that the Irish Constitution gives very strong protection to religious parents. It recognises their right to send their children to a school that reflects their beliefs, and it requires that the State respond to this right by funding such schools.
It never envisaged, and doesn't envisage, that the rights of religious parents could be trampled over to satisfy the conflicting rights of non-religious parents.
Secondly, international law also upholds the rights of religious parents. It doesn't view religious freedom primarily as freedom from religion. It sees it as something more positive as well, that is, as freedom of religion.
The interpretation of human rights treaties by various human rights bodies is another matter. Increasingly they view religious freedom in negative terms, that is, as freedom from religion.
However, this does not take away from the fact that the rights of religious parents are protected in international human rights documents.
Where does this leave us vis a vis Martijn Leenheer and similar-minded parents? (He has since sent his child to an Educate Together school over the border in Sligo).
What the case highlights is the need for the State, with the help of the Church, to provide more schools to cater for non-religious parents. This will mean that the Church will have to give up some of its schools.
However, it would be a travesty if, as a result of cases like this, it was to be found that denominational schools were in breach of our supposed human rights obligations and therefore State-funded denominational education came to an end.
This would mean that the rights of non-religious parents had been allowed to trump the rights of religious parents. This would be especially unjust in a small community like Dromahair where the vast majority of parents are probably happy with their local Catholic school.
However, this case has put the writing on the wall more clearly than ever. Catholic and other religious parents must read it and wake up to the fact that their schools are under threat. But they should also know that a very strong argument can be made in favour of such schools. They just need to start making it.