Ireland's Catholic bishops have said that the two rules dealing with religious education – 'Rules 68 and 69' – should not be dealt with in isolation.

They were responding to the news that Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan wants to delete Rule 68, which states that "of all parts of the school curriculum, religious instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties".

Earlier, the minister said she will abolish the rule in January.

'Rule 68' has long been seen as a major obstacle to enabling Irish primary schools to cater properly for children of all religions and none.

It states that religious instruction is "a fundamental part" of schooling and that "a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school".

In a statement, the bishops' Council for Education warned that it was not the role of the minister to determine or interfere with the ethos of faith schools.

It said legal advice available to the Department of Education confirmed this.

The bishops have said, however, that they support the need to revise and update the 'Rules for National Schools'.

They said they believed the autonomy of schools, with regards to religious education and admission policies, should be enhanced rather than weakened.

They said given the current political and social situation in Europe, any rational analysis would suggest that religious education was more important now than ever and added they would welcome dialogue with the department on this matter.

Earlier, the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism said 'Rule 68' should be abolished "immediately".

The minister said last night the rule was archaic and that she would repeal it, along with any other rules that "don't speak to the diverse and welcoming nature of our modern school system".

Blog; Schools must deal with Rule 68's deletion

Currently schools are expected to spend an average of 30 minutes each day on religion.

This and other time allocations for subjects is currently being reviewed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

The NCCA is due to send recommendations to the minister next year.

Ms O'Sullivan questioned whether 30 minutes daily on religion was "enough" or "too much".

She went on to acknowledge that her Admissions to Schools Bill, published earlier this year was not perfect, but said she was proud of it.

She said it was unlikely that the bill would pass through both houses of the Oireachtas before the next general election.

The bill does not address the contentious issue of the current right of schools to favour children of their own religion over others when it comes to admission.

Referring to calls to amend equality legislation to prevent children who are not baptised from being discriminated against, she said she accepted that the Equal Status Act must be amended so that local schools were required to prioritise local children, no matter what their religion.

Last week both Government parties voted against an amendment proposed by Róisín Shortall which would have repealed a legislative clause allowing such discrimination.

Labour party TDs and others were criticised by parents and others on social media for rejecting the amendment.

Ms O’Sullivan said that minority faith education needed to be protected in any legislative changes.

She said Labour's election manifesto would include a commitment to do exactly that.

Group welcomes hugely positive decision

A spokesperson for Educate Equality has described the decision to abolish 'Rule 68' as hugely positive.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, April Duff said 90% of schools are run under Catholic patronage, so parents are not being given real choice to exercise their religious beliefs.

She said that divestment would not solve the problem because you cannot divest every school. 

Ms Duff said that this was a human rights issue and every child needed to be respected equally. 

She said we can achieve equality within the current system but we cannot continue to allow discrimination in the allocation of places based on a faith system.

However, David Quinn of Iona institute said it made sense to him that a faith-based school should be allowed to permeate the day with its ethos and that if a school has an ethos it must be allowed to serve that community first. 

Speaking on the same programme, Mr Quinn said he believed the decision was made by the Labour Party, pandering to certain elements among its supporters.

He said he assumed the logical next step, if the current Government is returned to power, is to amend the education act. 

Mr Quinn said that in up to 20% of schools, particularly on the southside of Dublin, there was an over enrollment problem and it suited the minister to hide behind the issue of religion rather than addressing the problem of a shortage in school places.

He added that he wished there was more demand for diversity but there has been huge resistance to divestment of Catholic schools.