Schools’ Catholic ethos open to challenge

Schools which do not accommodate Muslim students in a system dominated by Church control remain open to legal challenges despite moves towards reforms, a legal expert has warned.

There have been few legal challenges to school policies in relation to enrolment or accommodating religious practices of Muslims. Claire Hogan, a barrister, says this is largely because of compromises reached in schools where issues have arisen.

She examined the issue from a legal perspective in a doctoral thesis that also looked at freedom of religion in employment and healthcare.

In a research paper to be discussed at a conference on Islam in Ireland at University College Cork today, Ms Hogan says the Catholic monopoly of schools should not be allowed to continue.

About 96% of the country’s 3,200 primary schools are in denominational control, including 89% which are Catholic.

Although Ruairi Quinn, the education minister, is set to regulate school enrolment polices, Ms Hogan said the pace of change is slow.

The Forum of Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, whose report is being finalised, is expected to recommend how the transfer of control of some Catholic schools might take place. It is also likely to suggest improvements in the way schools cater for non-Catholic pupils at times of religion class or preparation for sacraments.

While some Catholic bishops are opening up to the possibility of making schools available in urban areas where there is demand for alternative provision, Ms Hogan said difficulties will remain in small towns and parishes where the one or two schools remain Cath-olic. She said the integrated curriculum in Catholic schools that means Church teaching permeates the entire school day is one of the main barriers to accommodating Islamic children.

“Although the Catholic ethos in schools seems not to preclude the accommodation of Islam in practice, the potential for limited or no accommodation exists. There is ample legal scope for schools to decide that a particular Islamic requirement does not cohere with the prevailing ethos, and so to ban it,” she says in her research paper.

“The fact that the integrated curriculum operates in almost 90% of schools, which are state-financed, renders Ireland’s education system extremely vulnerable to challenge.”

Previous studies have quoted Muslim students and their parents complaining about tensions with Catholic schools over issues such as wearing head scarves and setting aside time or space for Muslim prayer.

Another issue is that rights must also be protected of parents who still want their children taught in a Catholic or denominational ethos.

Ms Hogan said it is unlikely the ethos of the school will be compromised by the admission of a small number of children of minority faiths. However, she said that equality law still allows a school to refuse enrolment if it feels doing so is essential to maintain its ethos.

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