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As More Irish Turn Away From Catholicism, Parents Call For Non-Religious Schools


In the U.S., parents who want to give their children a religious education have to pay for it for the most part. In Ireland, it's the opposite - 92 percent of state schools are run by the Catholic Church. That's even though growing numbers of people in Ireland no longer identify as Catholic. And this is creating new tensions for parents trying to find schools for their kids. Miranda Kennedy has been digging into this from Dublin.

NIKKI MURPHY: I'll bring you down into the kitchen. Just - sorry, our lunch is cooking.

MIRANDA KENNEDY, BYLINE: Nikki Murphy is showing me around the small house she shares with her husband, Clem Brennan, and their two young children. She loves their neighborhood.

MURPHY: It's a great location for getting around. There's a nice village atmosphere here, lots of restaurants, lots of bars and, you know, well, we thought there was lots of schools (laughter). But yeah - but we would've thought that this was for us a really good step.

KENNEDY: But when their older son Reuben turned 4, they discovered a problem with their neighborhood.

MURPHY: One huge obstacle is trying to get Reuben into school. Yeah, it's been horrendous.

KENNEDY: Nikki and Clem chose not to baptize their son. Four years later, they've discovered they were seriously limiting the schools he could attend. Almost all public schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic Church, and they're allowed to discriminate in their admissions policies to give preference to baptized Catholic children. A new measure in Parliament will force schools to be open about their admissions policies, but changing them is another matter.

O'SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, Pat, and first of all, I'd like to join with Pat in welcoming all of you here to (unintelligible) this morning.

KENNEDY: At a Dublin wine bar, Ireland's education minister, Jan O'Sullivan, is launching a new training program. Afterwards, she tells me that she wants to change the rules on religious schooling, but the government is constrained by Ireland's history.

O'SULLIVAN: We, first of all, we've inherited a constitution which provides for religious denominations to protect their ethos. So we're constrained by that in terms of what we can do in education, but we're still, I suppose - a lot of that is determined by ownership, and the Catholic Church in particular own many of the schools - the majority of the schools in fact.

KENNEDY: Nikki Murphy has applied to 13 schools for her son, and they've all said no. The experience is making Nikki and Clem rethink whether they want to send Reuben to a Catholic school at all. Clem says his own Catholic education doesn't sit well with them.

CLEM BRENNAN: I feel that illusion was forced on me and that's why I feel so strongly about this. I'm just not going to do that to the boys.

KENNEDY: A generation ago, there wasn't much of a call for non-religious schools in Ireland, but since then, many people have turned against the church in the wake of horrifying revelations about priest-child abuse and its cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy. Children in Catholic-run schools are not obliged to do their first communion. Parents with children in Catholic schools can request that they be pulled out of the religious portion of the school day, but that doesn't mean that they will be taught during that time. Paul Rowe is with the organization Educate Together, which runs some non-religious schools in Ireland.

PAUL ROWE: There is no legal right to any alternative program. In most schools, there's no place for the children to go. They sit in the corridor or they go to the principal's office and they just sit there. They are marginalized in the educational environment.

KENNEDY: Nikki and Clem recently launched a campaign to open a secular school in their neighborhood. Nikki knows she could still get Reuben into the Catholic school if she baptized him, but she feels that she'd be lying.

MURPHY: What kind of message is that giving Ruben? It goes against my conscience to do it, and if I could've done it I would've done it by now because the stress has just been so much that if it was something I could do I would've done it by now, so...

Did you have a good nap? Did you have a good nap? Is it lunchtime?

KENNEDY: Nikki is hoping that the campaign to open a non-Catholic school in her neighborhood will succeed and that will save her from having to go through it all again for her younger child. For NPR News, I'm Miranda Kennedy in Dublin.

CORNISH: Miranda Kennedy's reporting from Ireland is supported by a fellowship from the International Reporting Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.