‘Schools should decide on ethos v rights’

Schools should be allowed to decide on the right balance between their religious ethos and the rights of staff despite plans to give legal protection to gay or divorced teachers, a Catholic schools leader has said.

Changes were proposed this year to employment law that allow schools, hospitals, and other religious-owned employers discriminate on certain grounds to protect their ethos. Unions representing staff the organisations had been lobbying for such changes.

The Seanad rejected Fianna Fáil senator Averil Power’s bill in May after Justice Minister Alan Shatter said it posed constitutional issues over the rights of religions orders to protect their ethos.

A Department of Justice spokesperson told the Irish Examiner that arrangements are being made to set up the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission as soon as possible and they will be asked to undertake an examination of the issue as a priority task.

However, in an article for the Jesuit journal ‘Studies’, the head of the group representing religious orders and the bishops on education issues says much of the criticism of section 37 of the Employment Equality Act is caused by misinterpretation of its intentions.

Fr Michael Drumm, chair of the Catholic Schools Partnership, said a religious body would have no right to use religious belief and affiliation in any of its employments without this piece of law.

“Thus a Catholic parish, a Church of Ireland diocese, a synagogue, or mosque could not use religious belief as a criterion for selecting their employees,” he said.

“Most people who criticise section 37 do so on the grounds of respect for sexual orientation. But would it be legitimate for the law to accord greater individual rights to sexual freedom than apply in other areas, such as religious freedom?” Fr Drumm asked.

He said there must be a balance of rights, and the 3,400 boards of management that run schools with a religious ethos must balance all contesting rights that are legitimately present in a school.

“Roughly 27,000 persons serve on these boards and they engage outside educational experts to be part of their interview panels for staff vacancies and promotions. Should these individual boards not be trusted to make reasonable judgments as to what is best for the particular school and to keep a balance with regard to various rights?”

Ms Power said Mr Shatter’s suggestion that the issue be dealt with by the proposed new commission was putting the issue on the long finger.

“My bill sought to maintain the right of religious employers to protect their ethos, but with a qualification that offered protection against discrimination to people who are gay, divorced, or unmarried parents, or a status that might be against the ethos of any faith,” Ms Power said.

She said job applicants or workers should only be judged on their teaching skills and willingness to uphold an ethos in their work, but the discrimination issue and any constitutional matters in the legislation could have been addressed at Oireachtas committee stage.

“Delaying the legal change means another school year will pass with gay teachers afraid to be open about their sexual orientation,” Ms Power said.


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