Parents should not be forced to have their children baptised to get a place in a State-funded school, Children’s Minister James Reilly has said, adding that it might be possible to change the situation through legislation rather than a referendum.
The deputy leader of Fine Gael said “it was not appropriate” that schools can insist that only children who have been baptised Catholic can get a place in their local school.
He was answering questions on Ireland’s adherence to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, whereby the issue of discrimination on the basis of religion was allowed in schools.
Members of the committee questioned why 96% of schools have a religious patron and more than 89% of schools are under the control of the Catholic Church.
Mr Reilly raised the issue of parents having to baptise their children to get them into their local school.
He admitted that while the Government is committed to a more pluralist system, change has been very slow, although 95% of the schools built in the past few years are multi-denominational at the request of their communities.
“We have a much more open and pluralist society now — there are 81 different nationalities in one school I know,” said Mr Reilly. “Patronage is lagging way behind the actuality of our system, with the clearly defined separation of Church and State.
After the day-long hearing, Mr Reilly said: “My personal opinion is that it is not right that people can be discriminated against on the ground of religion either for employment or admittance to school. The Constitution allows religion to protect their ethos, and so they can in effect still do that though the bar has been raised considerably.”
Mr Reilly said one way to change discrimination on the basis of religion is to hold a citizens’ convention and then to have an expert group address it. “If we got the right kind of wording then maybe it could be changed through legislation rather than changing the Constitution,” he said.
The issue was raised with the UN committee by Equate Ireland, which pointed to recent research and found that 46% of people would not choose a Christian school if they had a choice locally, while one in five knew of someone who had baptised their child just to get them into a local school.
It was also raised by Atheist Ireland, a group that accused the State of giving misleading answers when it appeared to suggest that the Admissions to Schools Bill would resolve the discrimination issue.
Atheist Ireland said the report from the UN next month will add to the eight sets of findings from various UN and Council of Europe bodies telling Ireland to stop breaching human rights.
Fianna Fáil, in a pre-election education policy launch, said it wants to end the right of schools to deny access to people who have not been baptised, and increase the number of schools that have religious patronage.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission raised the issue of the State outsourcing children’s services such as health to private bodies that do not necessarily comply with human rights.
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