The threat of five-year-olds of different faiths to a school’s belief systems should not be used as an excuse to allow religious discrimination to continue, TDs and senators were told.
A meeting of the Oireachtas education committee discussed Education Minister Richard Bruton’s School Admissions Bill yesterday, but was dominated by the absence of measures dealing with the ‘baptism barrier’.
Eoin Daly, a constitutional lawyer at NUI Galway and addressing the committee on behalf of lobby group Equate, said the obstacle of religious discrimination was not just an abstract issue. A survey for the organisation found one in five people know someone who baptised their child to help ensure access to a local school.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest it’s necessary to deny access to minority children to uphold the ethos of any school, [which is] ultimately a set of values,” said Mr Daly.
“It seems quite incredible to suggest that in order to uphold those values it is required to view four- and five-year-old children as somehow a threat to those values being practised and enshrined, whether they be Christian values or values of another kind.”
Mr Bruton had said the Government’s legal advice was that there would be constitutional issues around removing the right of the majority of schools controlled by religious patrons to prioritise pupils of their own faith where there are not enough places.
“But what about the other side of the equation? A right not to be discriminated against, for your religion is itself a part of religious freedom,” said Mr Daly.
Labour senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin criticised Mr Bruton’s intention that the bill would allow schools reserve places for children of past pupils, a practice which a previous committee report he helped prepare had said should be entirely outlawed.
“A provision in the bill suggesting somebody, through their royal blood lineage, would be allowed have their son or daughter go to the same school as them is bizarre,” said Mr Ó Riordáin.
“How any school body with any sense of equality in their ethos can stand over that bonkers provision goes against everything I feel is right and just in life or in society.”
Mr Bruton suggested the religious discrimination issue be dealt with in a Labour private member’s bill next year proposing changes to the Equal Status Act.
Paul Monahan of Education Equality, which represents around 500 families, said the Labour bill might simply move some children from third-class to second-class citizens.
By removing the right of a school to give priority to a child of the same religion from outside the area over a local child, but still allowing differentiation between two local children on the basis of religion, he said the wider issue might be perceived as resolved and would not be dealt with by lawmakers for another decade or more.
Atheist Ireland’s Jane Donnelly said it is a scandal the issue has not been resolved, despite 10 UN and Council of Europe human rights conclusions that families’ human rights are being breached.
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