Aoife Cassidy: Teachers are afraid to speak out about religion in schools

While children cannot be discriminated against by religious schools, teachers can. And they know it.
Aoife Cassidy: Teachers are afraid to speak out about religion in schools

The law allows Catholic schools to discriminate against employed teachers where they fail to uphold the Catholic ethos of the school, by virtue of section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998. File photo: iStock

I had an overwhelming response to my recent Irish Examiner article on taking faith formation and sacrament preparation out of schools. I wasn’t surprised by the huge reaction from parents. 

What did surprise me though was the sheer volume of messages I received from teachers, and the content of those messages. Teachers told me they are afraid to speak out. 

They told me they are concerned that if they speak out, they will lose their job, be passed over for promotion or be ostracised by their colleagues and community – which is precisely what happened to some teachers who contacted me who had opted their own children out of religion and the sacraments. 

Teachers in training colleges told me they are anxious about having to teach a faith they don’t believe in.

As things stand in Ireland, the so-called “baptism barrier” has been lifted. This means that a Catholic school cannot discriminate against a child on the grounds of religion on enrolment. Similarly, a Catholic school cannot discriminate against a teacher at recruitment.

However, the law does allow Catholic schools to discriminate against employed teachers where they fail to uphold the Catholic ethos of the school, by virtue of section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998. Teachers’ fears as expressed to me are grounded in law.

In practical terms, this means that if a teacher is of another faith or no faith, they have fewer than 10% of schools where they can apply to teach in and be true to their belief system, or they can pretend to have a Catholic faith. Which do you think is happening?

How, in 2022, in a modern, pluralist society are we allowing this discrimination to persist?

When I tell people that our children don’t do religion or the sacraments because we are not religious, almost all of them without fail reply, “oh we’re not religious either”.

So why do we require teachers of other faiths and none, to instil a faith in our children that parents are not willing to invest the time in instilling in their children themselves? It devalues the role of teachers in society, expecting them to compromise their own integrity just to “do their job”.

Teachers described to me how long hours are spent explaining the concepts of Mass and the auto-responses to the children, who don’t attend Mass regularly. The parents turn up on communion day “oohing and aahing” (as one teacher put it), over how lovely it all is.

We need to take a long, hard look at how we do religion in Catholic schools in Ireland. In most countries across Europe, faith formation and the sacraments are opt-in and extracurricular. In schools for other faiths in Ireland, preparations for rites of passage take place outside of school time.

I’ve had messages from Irish families abroad whose decision to move home to Ireland hinged on their children getting a place at a non-Catholic school or who are staying abroad because of our imbalanced education system. To impartial observers, we are a strange outlier.

I had good engagement on the piece from practising Catholics, some of whom see a real benefit of faith-formation and sacrament preparation taking place outside of school. Parents who have opted their children out of religion at school have usually reflected deeply on their own faith or lack of it, and so have more in common with practising Catholics than you might expect.

I have no agenda here. I’m a parent who sees the compromises and sacrifices teachers have to make, that parents themselves are not willing to make. Parents (and legislators) who say they are happy with the status quo might want to listen to their children’s educators a little more closely and consider the impact on them.

  • Aoife Cassidy is a qualified solicitor and full-time mother of four. She writes a book review page on Instagram @littlecassreads

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