The time has come to address the central role of religion in schools, the Irish government has been told. In a discussion paper presented by the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHCR) this week ministers were told that the religious ethos of most Irish schools may be a breach of the human rights of some children.

Simply allowing pupils of minority faiths (or none) to opt out of all religious instruction, the government was told, might not adequately address the issue since the Catholic ethos of most Irish schools strongly permeates their daily operation.

The time has has come for the Republic of Ireland to address what place - if any - religion should have in the classroom, reflecting the reality of the much more secular nation Ireland has become, the paper said.

It's a discussion that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, but next year Ireland's record on religion in its schools will come under intense scrutiny from an external review by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The IHCR paper also posed a series of tough questions as to whether the law and practice in Ireland meets human rights standards.

The Irish position could soon face challenges under the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the paper said.

At primary level, the IHCR said, Catholic schools require students to devote two-and-a-half hours per week to religious instruction, while it is two hours per week at secondary school level.

The IHCR paper acknowledged that clear provisions have been made by most schools for the right of concerned parents to withdraw their children from any form of instruction that conflicts with their own beliefs. But because of the religious ethos of most of Ireland's denominational schools, pupils would not necessarily be sheilded from receiving religious education informally, it stated.

Ninety two percent of Ireland's denominational primary schools are run by the Catholic Church. There are no non-denominational schools, and just over two percent of Irish schools are inter-denominational or multi-denominational.