THOUGH Enda Kenny’s statements on the possibility of a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment — should he be returned to power of course — falls some way short of a commitment, his suggestion that he anticipates a vote on the divisive issue will take place over the next “couple of years” is pretty close.
The Taoiseach seems to accept the issue must be resolved one way or another though he has expressed doubts that proposals to change the current legislation would be endorsed.
Earlier this week one of his ministers — Children’s Minister James Reilly speaking after a day-long hearing at the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva— returned to a second deeply divisive issue when he argued that ending religious discrimination in schools’ admission policies may also require a constitutional referendum.
He said he did not believe it was right that children should be discriminated against on the basis of religious belief — or nominal, pretend religious belief — or lack of it when applying for a place in State-funded schools. He did, however, acknowledge the constitutional provisions that allow religious institutions protect their ethos.
That essentially gives control of our primary schools — all of which are funded more or less 100% by the State — to the Catholic Church, a situation that no longer reflects the make-up of this society.
Ironically, and in a particularly Irish way, the legislation that allows 96% primary schools turn away children on the basis of their religious beliefs is called the Equal Status Act.
Deepening that anachronistic and offensive irony, the minister of state, who on December 2 approved the right of schools to reject pupils on the basis of their religion or lack of it, is known as the minister for equality.
The Equal Status Act 2000 allows oversubscribed schools favour children who share the school’s patron’s religious beliefs.
This, no matter how it is dressed up, discriminates against some children at the very moment that they should expect the State’s full support and encouragement.
At the very point the State should embrace young citizens from every background, it, or more accurately its agent, uses the baptised-or-not filter to rule on who gets a particular school place or not.
This is, no matter how enthusiastically it is dressed up, religious segregation and makes second class citizens of an ever greater number of Irish children.
The situation might be less fraught if there were more school places in areas where schools are oversubscribed but there are not and that shortcoming cannot be used to perpetuate an inequity.
Those who wish to preserve the current monopoly occasionally argue that under new patronage, many schools would become ethics-free zones and that religious education would be sidelined.
This, of course, is bunkum. Religious education would be available for those who wish to avail of it but it, or at least an exclusive version of it, might not enjoy today’s unquestioning centrality.
New school patronage arrangements might also be an opportunity to place a new emphasis on the kind of civic morality so obviously absent on so many fronts.
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