School scuffle over Virgin Mary statue

A caretaker was left visibly shaken and suffered a cut to his neck after the attempted removal of a statue of the Virgin Mary at a school sparked a scuffle with a teacher.

The computer science and maths teacher was sanctioned by his superiors after the pair had a confrontation after the teacher removed the Virgin Mary statue on a makeshift “May Altar’ erected by the caretaker at the entrance to the school.

As a result of the flashpoint, the caretaker, in his 60s, was left visibly shaken, sustained a cut to his neck, and bruising to his hand.

The matter was reported to gardaí and an investigation by the school ensued.

The teacher, a humanist, was issued with a verbal warning.

Details of the incident in May 1, 2015, are contained in a new Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) ruling, which found the teacher was not discriminated against on the grounds of religion concerning the placing of the Virgin Mary and the altar at a prominent place in the school.

Adjudication officer Enda Murphy said it is clear the incident “was very unsavoury and that both parties engaged in conduct which was unprofessional and totally unacceptable in the workplace”.

He said: “It is also clear from the evidence adduced that the incident caused upset and distress to both parties.”

Mr Murphy noted that the humanist is the only person to have complained about the May altar in a 30-year tradition at the school.

Throwing out the teacher’s claim for discrimination, harassment, and victimisation, Mr Murphy said: “I find that the presence of the May altar in the complainant’s workplace and his subsequent attempt to remove the religious statue did not constitute a prohibition or disadvantage on him in terms of the manifestation or assertion of his beliefs as a humanist.

“I am satisfied that the placement of the May altar is a passive symbol which is not intended for the purpose of imposing or manifesting Catholic or Christian beliefs upon the complainant personally.”

Mr Murphy found the presence of religious symbols such as the May altar to be wholly legitimate, rational, and proportionate to the object of the preservation of the Christian ethos within the school.

A solicitor for the humanist teacher yesterday declined to comment.

A witness said the caretaker “stumbled out from behind the area after an aggressive altercation” and was “visibly shook”.

No parties are named in the case and the teacher, employed at the school since 1994, told the hearing the placing of the statue provoked deep unease and anxiety in him because of his deeply held beliefs.

He said the presence of the May altar “is unpalatable and offensive to him personally on the basis of his belief that the religious statue of the Virgin Mary is one associated with the repression of normal human sexuality”.

The teacher said the manner in which he was accosted by the caretaker while he tried to remove the statue amounted to harassment.

He said the incident greatly impacted upon him as he suffered physical harm and considerable stress and anxiety.

The accounts of what occurred between the teacher and caretaker are disputed, but, according to the school, the teacher told the caretaker, in an aggressive manner, “I’m putting it in your room so you can look at it”, before removing the statue.


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