Martijn and Finn Leenheer: Finn now attends a school in Sligo

The father of a five-year-old boy who was "horrified" to find his son was reciting prayers at school, despite having opted out of religious instruction, has hit out at the ongoing influence of the Catholic church on the Irish education system.

Dutch-born Martijn Leenheer told the Sunday Tribune he was so upset at the way his son Finn's national school in Dromahair, Co Leitrim, dealt with his concerns that he decided to remove him shortly before Christmas.

Finn is now attending an Educate Together school which is located in Sligo around 19km from his home, requiring a two-hour round trip to and from the school.

Leenheer, who outlined his case in a recent submission to the Irish Human Rights Commission, said he and his wife Amanda had enrolled their son at Drumlease national school last September because they thought it was in his best interests to be educated in his community.

On the enrolment form for the school, he specifically stated he did not wish his child to be taught the Catholic faith.

"In this section it stated that it meant my son would still be in the classroom while the religious education was given since the school is not responsible for supervision of our child when we opt him out. We were not happy with this but thought that our kid was at least free from being taught the Catholic faith," he said.

"After two months our son told us he was reciting prayers at school twice daily. We were truly shocked; did we not state specifically that we didn't want this?

"We were never informed in any way that prayers were recited twice daily and read the information pack over to see if we missed this. We could not find it mentioned anywhere."

However, when Leenheer raised his concerns with the school, he claimed he was told he or his wife would have to come to school to personally supervise Finn during school prayers, something which he said was "just not practical".

After three months, he grew so frustrated with the response of the school that he had "no option" but to send his son to the "brilliant" Educate Together school in Sligo, where he has "settled in very well".

"But all his friends from here are in Drumlease school. This is his community. This could have been resolved quite easily if the will had been there, for example the school could have allowed older kids to look after him during prayers as is the case when it rains for example. But they just weren't interested."

David O'Farrell, principal of the school, said it had a "long established tradition of promoting equality and respecting diversity."

"It is a Catholic School but for many years has welcomed children of other faiths and none," he said. "The mission statement of the school makes clear that a Catholic ethos is an integral part of the curriculum and day to day life of the school. This includes a short prayer at the beginning and end of the day". However, the statement says clearly that the "school embraces and cherishes all children equally irrespective of having religious beliefs or having none

Last week, Atheist Ireland expressed concern that the right of individuals to be exempted from participation in religious classes was a "theoretical illusion" because there were no appropriate provisions within the education system for the convictions of non-religious parents to be respected.