Government intends to today betray its pledge to protect atheist teachers

by Michael Nugent on December 2, 2015

Labour JOS
Today the Dail will vote on the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which will protect Catholic LGBT teachers at the expense of reinforcing the right to discriminate against atheist and minority faith teachers of any sexuality. Please contact your TDs today to ask them to support the amendments to this Bill that will be proposed today by the Socialist Party/AAA.

Minister of State Aodhan O Riordain told the Dail last week that

It was for this reason that the Government, in the programme for Government, undertook to amend section 37(1) to provide for a more equitable balance between the rights and freedoms of religion and religious institutions on the one hand and the right to be free from discrimination on the other.

But that was not the commitment in the Programme for Government. The commitment in the Programme for Government was:

People of non-faith or minority religious backgrounds and publicly identified LGBT people should not be deterred from training or taking up employment as teachers in the State. – Page 13, Programme for Government 2011

Fine Gael and Labour have since abandoned that part of the pledge that protects atheist and minority faith teachers. This would be misleading enough in any context, and is even more so when talking about a pledge to bring about equality and human rights.

Commitments to Atheist Ireland before the election

Before the last general election, Atheist Ireland asked all of the political parties: “If elected, would you vote to ensure that religious bodies are treated the same as other organisations under equality and employment legislation?”

Fine Gael replied:

Yes.

The Labour Party replied:

We believe that all organizations, religious or secular, should be treated equally. We acknowledge the enormous amount of work that many organizations undertake in this society. In relation to employment legislation we simply believe this should apply equally to all.

Both Government parties are now in the process of breaking these pledges, and seem likely to formalise the breaking of this particular pledge tonight.

Several TDs have already welcomed this discriminatory Bill in the Dail, correctly using arguments about respecting the rights of LGBT citizens, while remaining blind to the fact that this Bill reinforces the right to discriminate against atheist citizens on the exact same basis.

Meanwhile, other TDS including Clare Daly, Ruth Coppinger and Catherine Murphy have highlighted the flaws in the Bill, and the Socialist Party/AAA will be proposing amendments in the Dail tonight that reflect the comprehensive reform approach of Atheist Ireland’s Schools Equality PACT.

TDs who have welcomed this flawed Bill

Minister Aodhan O Riordan said:

Throughout our recent marriage equality referendum campaign, I met teachers who could not talk about their private lives with their colleagues in work. This was not because their colleagues did not accept them, but because they feared the repercussions of being open about their relationship status or sexual orientation. In 2015 this is absolutely unacceptable which is why I am bringing these much-needed changes before the House today.

John Lyons TD said:

It is not and never was acceptable that a person could not go to work and go into the staff room, be it in a hospital or school, and not be able to talk about where they were at the weekend, who they spent their time with at the weekend or about the person they love so much. Whether we like it or not, the law that exists, which will be changed on foot of this Bill being passed, allowed for that situation to be created for people in society… I commend this Bill, of which I am very supportive. Most importantly, however, I am delighted for those who may walk that tiny bit taller when the Bill is passed.

Coara Conway TD said:

On thinking about what makes us human, it is when we talk about personal stories, that is, the things that happen outside of work and at the weekends. These are the things that fill the days of workers in staff rooms, break rooms and canteens nationwide. The thought that because of one’s sexuality, because one’s marriage had ended or because one had a child while unmarried, one might not feel comfortable in one’s ability to talk about what is the monotony of life with one’s colleagues for fear that one might put one’s job or one’s career prospects at risk is, in 2015, something that is a relic of the past. This is why I am so delighted this Bill has been brought before the House.

Arthur Spring TD said:

I compliment those who initiated this amending legislation. They made me aware of something I could not even believe existed in society in this day and age. We come here as people who are supposed to know everything about all aspects of society. We seem to be living in an era where equality has not quite yet been achieved. Parts of the Bill will bring about a transformation for people working in public sector jobs in the State, particularly in education and health. This is a good day for those who are divorced, LGBT or what would not be mainstream in certain religious orders.

Jerry Buttimer TD said:

Today we stand on the brink of a new Ireland where people are equal as citizens. That did not just happen by chance… That is why it is important that not alone do we cast aside the chill factor but we open the window to a new and different Ireland. The year 2015 will be remembered by those of us in the minority as the year when the majority accepted and embraced us.

Niall Collins TD said:

We believe this exemption under the 1998 Employment Equality Act needs to be amended to ensure no teacher is discriminated against on the grounds of his or her sexuality. While the current exemption clause in employment legislation for religious institutions is rarely if ever used, the need to amend the law is important as it will finally end the chill effect experienced by gay employees working in schools, hospitals and other institutions which have a religious ethos.

Padraig Mac Lochlainn TD said:

I listened to a number of previous speakers who outlined examples of the impact of this ongoing injustice, and I welcome this legislation to bring an end to it. On foot of the passing of the marriage referendum, a number of matters are of powerful importance to the LGBT community. Hopefully, it will remove homophobia from the classroom and workplace and will prevent the chilling effect mentioned by the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, in introducing this debate.

All of these points are valid, and it is important that they are implemented. However, they are equally valid for teachers who are atheists or members of minority faiths.

If it is ‘absolutely unacceptable’ to discriminate against teachers who are gay, which it is, then it is equally ‘absolutely unacceptable’ to discriminate against teachers who are atheists.

TDs who recognise the flaws in the Bill

Clare Daly TD said:

The root of this problem lies in the fact that 94% of primary schools in Ireland are Catholic run, more than half of which are in areas where there is no alternative model. It is shocking that situation prevails. It is a consequence of the Irish State farming out year ago responsibility for health, education and social care to the Catholic church. It is now farming out this responsibility to private companies, which is a little ironic. This is all about not looking at a rights based approach. We need to change how we look at this issue…. Everybody needs access to schools and hospitals and they should not be the prerogative of a religious ethos. It is wrong that would happen. Religious belief should never interfere with a citizen’s right to health care or education and we need to stand that on its head.

What we should be saying is that educational and medical institutions, which are funded by the State, should be taken out of the remit of section 37 altogether. Those institutions have a wider role in society. They are funded by the taxpayer and equal access should exist regardless of religious beliefs. In a hospital, there is no occupational reason only a person of faith could do a medical or administrative job. Similarly, there is no occupational reason in State schools.

It is linked to the provision of chaplains or spiritual advisers in those institutions, which should be a matter for the religions and not be funded by the State. The Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, is aware of work done by Atheist Ireland in this regard. It has highlighted the case of institutes of technology, which were established on an entirely secular model and have no religious functions, and yet we know hundreds of thousands of euro in taxpayers’ money is being used to fund Catholic chaplains in a number of the institutions. That is simply not good enough.

Ruth Coppinger TD said:

Is it still okay to discriminate against atheists and people who do not profess a religion because that is exactly what the Bill will still allow? It seems that there is pussy-footing going on about schools that are still under religious patronage, which is the majority of schools in this country. I have a genuine question that must be answered because it will be asked.

I know many primary schoolteachers who are atheists, who do not believe in any religion, but they are forced by their occupation to instruct Catholic teaching and assist with ceremonies such as first communion, or they try to avoid that class. Does the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, think that is acceptable?

We must tackle religious control over schools that makes teachers fit in with religious instruction. That is wrong. It is a human right not to have a religion and not to be forced to believe in a certain religion or to have to pretend to believe in one. The Bill will continue to allow such teachers to be discriminated against and not to be promoted or not to be employed in the first place. We must say that is not okay.

As for other issues that should be brought forward, I was very surprised the Minister of State did not use the opportunity provided by a miscellaneous Bill to deal with the issue about which parents were protesting outside the gates of Leinster House yesterday, namely, that schools can require a child to prove he or she is of a certain religion to secure a place in that school, that is, the baptismal certificate scenario. A simple repeal of section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act could have been included in this Bill and that would then have addressed a huge issue.

Catherine Murphy TD said:

One issue that is not included in this Bill concerns access to schools for children who do not have baptismal certificates in a system in which 95% of schools are under Roman Catholic patronage. Honesty is a value one should be fostering among people and asking people to be dishonest simply to get their children into school is in conflict with such patronage and its values, which I find to be very odd. I am not religious myself and would describe myself perhaps as a humanist or an agnostic or something like that but in common with others like myself, this does not stop us from having values that are fairly honourable in terms of telling the truth and so on. The idea that one must have a religious moral standard of some sort is different to the reality of contemporary Ireland.

The Socialist Party/AAA have put forward a series of amendments to the Bill today. These proposed amendments recognise the need to tackle together the four aspects of the Schools Equality PACT, in which PACT is an acronym for Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching.

We ask the Government and opposition TDs to support these amendments.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Citizen Wolf December 2, 2015 at 6:14 pm

I’m not at all surprised that this is coming from a party led by Enda Kenny. His stance on climate change is similarly disgusting. Says one thing but fails to act on his words.

2 David Thomas December 2, 2015 at 7:25 pm

Are voting records public? I’d love to be able to hold politicians to account on this when they come knocking on my door at election time.

3 David Thomas December 2, 2015 at 8:35 pm

Also the quote from the programme for government comes from page 42 not 13, just in case anyone uses that quote in correspondence with their TD.

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