The Department of Education and the National Parents Council warned last night that there was nothing the State could do to stop church-run schools from banning the children of non-practising Catholics from attending.
Fr Michael Daly, parish priest in Stamullen, said children of lapsed Catholics will be the first to lose out in any future squeeze on school places. His policy, designed to bring people back to the faith, has led to calls from parents' groups for the State to provide non-denominational schools.
A Department of Education spokesperson said other schools could follow the example being proposed by Fr Daly in Meath.
The spokesperson cited the 1998 Education Act which allows for boards of management of schools not in a position to admit all pupils to restrict enrolment to children from a particular area, or age group, or religion. The parish priest is normally the chairperson of the board of management.
The Irish national school system is not a State system instead most schools are under the patronage of the local bishop. The overwhelming majority of them are Catholic and funded by the State.
National Parents Council chief executive Fionnuala Kilfeather said:"If it [the Catholic Church] proposes that it will not provide an education service for all the children in the community served by the school, the State needs to plan to make provision for other schools. We will then have the position [common in most countries] where there is a non-denominational state education system, in parallel with schools owned by groups with a specific religious or other ethos."
Ms Kilfeather added that the State could not justify the building of new schools when there were empty classrooms in existing Catholic schools.
"The reality is that in order that provision is made for all children in an increasingly pluralist and multi-ethnic Ireland, the Catholic Church could not have a monopoly on buildings and might have to hand over schools to other patrons or to the State.
"There are implications here too for areas with falling numbers and proposals for school amalgamations or closures."
Ms Kilfeather said different dioceses could not have different policies.
"In fairness to parents and to the Government, the Catholic Church needs to take a global view for the whole country. A radical rethink is called for on how the education system can, while respecting the rights and responsibilities of all, serve the needs of parents, children and society," she said.