Is it ok for a school to ask for your religion?

Before the Admissions Bill came into practice, all denominational schools were allowed to prioritise enrollment applications from families of the same religious belief as their school’s patron. Put simple, Catholic schools could prioritise Catholic children over non-Catholic children. In order for schools to be able to do this, they would ask for a Baptismal Certificate (or whatever equivalent depending on the ethos of the school) to prove that the child was indeed part of the flock.

Since 2018, Catholic schools are no longer allowed to prioritise enrollments for Catholic children. All other faith groups are still allowed. Whether this is fair or not is not for the purposes of this article, (it isn’t, in my opinion), but is it now ok for a school to ask a family for their religion anymore?

As with everything in education, there isn’t a straightforward answer to this question. (To be fair, yes, is the answer so there is a straightforward answer!) However, there’s a little bit more to it than a simple yes, so I’ll start with where it is not ok.

Remembering that minority religion schools (in Ireland this currently means Jewish, Muslim and Protestant) can ask for proof of a child’s religion before accepting an enrollment, all other schools are forbidden from withholding an enrollment based on a child’s stated religion. Therefore, schools should have no reason to ask a family their religion on a pre-enrollment form or an expression of interest form, or whatever a school calls its application for enrollment form. The only details a school should really have are:

  • Name, Address and Date of Birth
  • Parent/Guardian contact details
  • Valid criteria for priority of enrollment

Schools are entitled to prioritise enrollments on the basis of having a sibling currently in the school, or by catchment area, or possibly by date of birth, and definitely gender if it is a single sex school, but outside of that, there are very few other ways to prioritise an applicant for enrollment.

Schools then must offer places to applicants after a certain cut-off date. If there are more applications than there are places, the priority criteria kick in, so, for example, siblings might be accepted first, then children from the catchment area. After that there might be a lottery for places or the school might offer the oldest children left on the list – or a combination of all of the above. It depends of the school.

The offer of the place is called the Enrollment Form and this is where the school can ask parents pretty much anything they deem necessary. This could be whether the parents sign up to the policies of the school. It could be to ask if their child has any additional needs. It may be the child’s doctor’s details. And, yes, the school can ask for the child’s religion.

Why would a school do this? After all, no matter what is written on the enrollment form cannot remove the child’s right to a place in the school, (apart from very exceptional circumstances, of which I can’t really think of any.)

There are generally two main possibilities.

POD

POD is the Primary Online Database. It’s a government database which stores every single child enrolled in every single national school in the country. Every child is assigned a numerical code and if a parent tries to enrol their child in more than one school, the system alerts the schools of the conflict. This is very useful in lots of different ways, which again are beyond the scope of this article. However, one of the optional questions that POD asks schools to fill in, is the religion of the child. This is used for statistical reasons. Right now, I don’t know what this data is used for. I’d hope it would help to identify the number of people attending denominational schools that do not share the faith of the school, and therefore ensure more secular/multidenominational/equality-based schools, but I doubt that’s happening. However, even if that is maybe why it will be used in the future, I think it is very useful for parents from minority faiths (including those without a particular faith) to state this so the data gets inputted. Anyway, this is why schools might ask for a child’s religion on an enrollment form.

Sacraments

In fairness to schools, they are unlikely to want to offer Commmunion or Confirmation to any child that isn’t being raised Catholic. Given that the vast majority of children in Catholic schools, whether they are church-goers or not, make their sacraments, it seems to make sense to find out what religion a child is being raised with so there isn’t an assumption made. As politically incorrect as it might sound, when one is white and Irish, there is automatically an assumption that one is Catholic if they are in a Catholic school. Therefore, it makes sense for a school to ask. Once they have the information they can be more prepared in terms of opting out should the family wish to do this.

The main thing to note though is that an enrollment cannot be withdrawn if a family state a particular religion or state they have no religion. If this happens, the school is breaking the law.

In a nutshell, Catholic schools should not ask for a child’s religion before the child is offered a place in the school. If they are being asked, this is not ok and the school should be informed of this so necessary changes can be made. It should also be said that you have a right not to state the belief that you are raising your child with.

While certain religious-run schools can still discriminate against children based on the beliefs of their parents, Catholic schools can no longer do so. However, once a place in the school is offered, it is ok for them to ask for the child’s religion. Whether or not, you want to answer the question, is entirely up to you.

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