Several TDs (Members of Parliament) called for full separation of church and State during a Dail debate this week. The Bill being debated aims to repeal Section 37 of our employment equality law, which permits religious discrimination against LGBT, atheist and other employees in schools and hospitals.
The Bill was proposed by Paul Murphy and Ruth Coppinger of the Anti Austerity Alliance and Socialist Party, and has the support of a wide number of groups including Atheist Ireland, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, the ASTI, the INTO, the TUI, LGBT Noise and ICTU Youth.
All speakers welcomed at least the principles behind the Bill. Beyond that, Socialists and Independents were strongest in support for full separation of church and State. Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein speakers opposed all religious discrimination particularly in the workplace. Most Government TDs from Fine Gael and the Labour Party focused on being constitutionally cautious, supporting laws that allow religions to discriminate against atheists.
Two Government Ministers, for Equality and Education, responded to the debate. Neither referred to the religious discrimination against atheists, and both indicated that the Government would instead support an earlier Bill to amend this law. That Bill, known as the Bacik Bill, would protect LGBT teachers but would not protect atheist teachers.
I will analyse in another post the Government Ministers’ responses, and the flaws in the Bacik Bill that they support. In this post I will highlight some extracts from the speeches of the TDs who this week, to varying extents, endorsed the principle of separation of church and State.
1. Which speakers supported separation of church and State?
Contributions from Socialist and Independent TDs
- Paul Murphy (Anti Austerity Alliance) said that we need a secular society, with properly funded and State-provided public services, with a separation between the actions of a church and the actions of the State, without a church being relied upon to run and control vital public services.
- Ruth Coppinger (Socialist Party) said that the need for separation of church and State has become patently clear from the marriage equality referendum and from the wishes of the majority in society, in order that women receive the care they need and minorities of all kinds are protected.
- Thomas Pringle (Independent) said the Bill addresses the wider issue of the relationship between church and State, and for as long as the Government outsources education to the Catholic Church, the patronage system will view education as an indoctrination of teachings and of religious ethos.
- Catherine Murphy (Independent) said that section 37 contains wide ranging and blank cheque language that provides for State sanctioned discrimination, but there are also wider issues to be raised, including school patronage which is a hangover from an out of date time in our history.
- Clare Daly (Independent) said the State abdicated its responsibility to provide access for citizens to essential public services, and that the State should provide on a secular, non-denominational basis for all essential public services needed by all citizens, from the cradle to the grave.
- Richard Boyd Barrett (People Before Profit Alliance) said that the separation of church and State must be translated into reality, and that this Bill is a catching up exercise in demanding that our laws reflect the wishes, views and sentiments of the people for equality.
- Joan Collins (Independent) said that there is a long way to go, both in law and in practice, before we have a proper separation of church and State, and that any society which aspires to equality should not give preference to a particular religion or to a religious ethos over secular views.
- Joe Higgins (Socialist party) said that there must not be religious control over education, health and other crucial services, which should be democratically run and funded, with religion a matter of personal choice not endorsed, assisted or hindered by the State.
- Paul Murphy (Anti Austerity Alliance), responding to the debate, said there should be no discrimination of any form in church-run health or education services, that equality is a binary state, either one is equal or one is not, and we need full equality rather than a higher bar for discrimination.
Contributions from Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein TDs
- Colm Keaveney (Fianna Fail) said that freedom of religion is an important constitutional value and one that Fianna Fail respects, but religion should not be used as an opportunity to permit discrimination, particularly when it comes to employment.
- Padraig Mac Lochlainn (Sinn Fein) said that discrimination and intolerance should be challenged and stamped out wherever it exists, and that we should ensure no loophole remains in existing legislation that will allow discrimination in any shape or form.
- Jonathan O’Brien (Sinn Fein) said that Section 37 also affects single mothers, people who may be divorced or people with a different religious background, due to the fact that we have not grasped the idea of separating Church and education in a multicultural society.
Contributions from Government Party TDs
- Jerry Buttimer (Fine Gael), said that we are moving to that moment in time in our separation of Church and State where all citizens will be free to be who they are, and that Section 37 hovers over people with a different religious perspective, ethos and belief.
- Derek Nolan (Labour) said that we are still grappling with historical legacies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when education was outsourced, and that we should err on the side of constitutionality and work within what we know are the confines of the Constitution.
- Robert Dowds (Labour) said that we have the great advantage of tradition and a determination on the part of schools to ensure that people are accepted and treated with respect, and he is optimistic that the path forward on this law will be positive and beneficial for the country.
- Aine Collins (Fine Gael) said that we must bear in mind those of other beliefs and none, and that freedom of religion and assembly, the right to privacy and conscience are all fundamental to our society.
- Dan Neville (Fine Gael) said that the Bill will require amendment because it appears to conflict with the constitutional protection for freedom of religion and of religious groups to establish their own institutions.
- John Lyons (Labour) said that the Labour Bill addressed the issue slightly differently than this Bill. It looked at respecting the balance between the constitutional protection of the freedom of religion and allowing the individual to be completely protected in those situations.
- Dominic Hannigan (Labour) said that the Government is drafting amendments to improve the proposed Bacik Bill, to protect members of the LGBT community and also potentially people who might be divorced or unmarried parents.
Contributions from Government Ministers
- The Government ministers who responded to the debate were Aodhan O Riordain, Labour Party, Minister of State for Equality, and Jan O’Sullivan, Labour Party, Minister for Education.
- I will analyse in another post the Government responses, and the flaws in the Bacik Bill that they support. Atheist Ireland has previously highlighted those flaws when that Bill was first raised.
2. More extracts from Socialist and Independent TDs
Paul Murphy, Anti Austerity Alliance, Dublin South West
We need to end the incredible situation whereby church-run schools, hospitals or charitable institutions can discriminate against LGBTQ people, atheists, unmarried mothers, divorced people, minority faiths and others. Now is clearly the time to end all legal discrimination as a step towards real equality and a progressive secular State with separation of church and State.
More fundamentally, we should not have any church controlling our education or health services. We need a secular society, with properly funded and State-provided public services. A secular society means everyone is perfectly entitled and free to practise whatever religion they want, with no interference from the State. Indeed, the State would defend their right to do so. It also would mean, however, a separation between the actions of a church and the actions of the State, without, as has happened since the foundation of this State, a church being relied upon to run and control vital public services.
Ruth Coppinger, Socialist Party, Dublin West
Section 37 brings up the historical connection between Church and State in this country. Some 96% of primary schools have denominational patronage and 90% of them are Catholic-owned or run. The situation in secondary schools is not much better. We have schools which are called community schools but there is Catholic patronage in many of those schools as well. This does not reflect a choice among the population.
We need a separation of church and State in this country. That has become patently clear from the marriage equality referendum and from the wishes of the majority in society. It was young people who led that movement. What does it say about the homophobic and transgender attitudes that must be prevalent in many schools if teachers themselves cannot come out? What message is being sent to students who are gay?
Let us not forget the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar. That this is a Catholic country was cited by a health professional. Archbishops are on the board of the National Maternity Hospital. Why? What gynaecological expertise does a bishop have that he would be sitting on a maternity hospital board? We need to separate church and State in order that women receive the care they need and minorities of all kinds are protected.
We also have the huge issue of freedom of conscience. People who are not Catholic or religious are being forced to teach religion and to go to schools to which they do not really want to go.
Thomas Pringle, Independent, Donegal South West
The Bill addresses the wider issue of the relationship between the church and the State. The Catholic Church is still patron to almost 90% of Ireland’s primary schools. Ireland is essentially experiencing a crisis in education provision, providing only one option for parents, an option which includes an ethos that is not reflective of the multicultural and modern society we see today.
This is only possible if the educational institution’s ethos is inclusive and promotes diversity and equality. Currently this is not reflected through the management of our educational system. The parish priest still effectively manages the board of management of national schools. The diocese nominates three members, including the chairperson, to the board of management. There are two teacher representatives on the board. The board is stacked in favour of the ethos because the teachers may not feel they can challenge it if they are to protect their jobs.
For as long as the Government outsources its education provision to the Catholic Church, the patronage system will view education as an indoctrination of teachings and of religious ethos. This bears a heavy weight on LGBT children. The legacy of such teachings has chilled the environment enough to halt or restrict the experience of childhood, and its transition into adulthood.
Catherine Murphy, Independent, Kildare North
Many of us became involved in politics with the goal of achieving equality for all citizens – equal rights, equality of opportunities and equality of outcome, equal access to services of the State, equal access to health care and education and equal pay for equal work. All of us could write a long list regarding equality. That is the reason section 37 of the Employment Equality Act sticks out like a sore thumb, containing wide ranging and blank cheque language to provide for State sanctioned discrimination. There is no legitimate reason for it and that is acknowledged by many people.
However, there are wider issues to be raised, including school patronage and expanding that patronage. School patronage did not start after the foundation of the State. It dates back to the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation, in particular, when schools started to develop usually under a patron. It is a hangover from an out of date time in our history. This is why we need more movement and to give more choice, not only to teachers but also to parents making choices for their children. A wider choice results in options very quickly.
Clare Daly, Independent, Dublin North
This is not only about LGBT people. Teachers who, like me, are atheists similarly believe that the existing legislation prevents them from speaking out about their beliefs. While the provision might not ever have been officially invoked to fire a teacher or deny a promotion, as stated by other Deputies, it has, undoubtedly, acted as a chilling affect and it needs to be changed. For that reason, I am very happy to support this Bill.
The reason we are discussing this issue and the reason this Bill is necessary is rooted in the fact that the State abdicated its responsibility to provide access for citizens to essential public services and handed over the running of hospitals, schools, the welfare of citizens and so on to the Catholic church at the time the State was founded. That is the root of this scenario. That abdication has left us in a situation whereby 90% of primary schools have a Catholic ethos. It also gave rise to the imprisonment and abuse of women in the Magdalen laundries and of children in residential institutions, symphysiotomy and our hypocrisy towards abortion and so on.
That is the legacy of this State having farmed out its responsibilities to a private organisation with its own rules, its own laws and its own ways of doing things, which are at variance with the viewpoint of many citizens of this State… The power of the Church has waned but we are still dealing with that legacy. As I said, that is what is at the root of this issue.
The ball is firmly in the Government’s court to deliver on this, to end the chilling effect and give a voice to what is clearly the wish of the people. I say this firmly in the belief that if the church wants to run a school, a hospital or whatever for itself and its followers, and it funds that, that is entirely up to it. The State should provide on a secular, non-denominational basis for all essential public services needed by all citizens, from the cradle to the grave. That is a much more acceptable model and is one that is in keeping with the wishes of Irish citizens.
Richard Boyd Barrett, People Before Profit Alliance, Dun Laoghaire
The Yes Equality slogan brilliantly captured the mood. There is no doubt that the resonance Yes Equality went way beyond the issue of LGBT rights. It is phenomenal that we got to a point where the overwhelming majority of people, young and old, supported marriage equality. There may have been a generational aspect to the issue, but I was inspired by the fact that right across the generations people embraced the “Yes” vote and the need to see people as human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation. The victory for the “Yes” campaign was mammoth, but the point is that the notion of equality resonated far further than LGBT rights.
As some Members have mentioned, this Bill speaks to the insistence that a demand or slogan that has been around a long time – the separation of church and State – must be translated by this House into reality. This is what people want and it must happen. It is unacceptable that this policy would persist in any shape or form. I was talking to a teacher earlier and asked to what extent he believed discrimination in this regard persists. He told me that because of the change in sentiment and in the views of people generally, he could not think of many instances of discrimination being persistent, because such is the tide of popular opinion and sentiment that discrimination is being swept aside. That is great but our laws must now reflect that change.
It is telling that the political system is always behind and always catching up with the progress that is being made by ordinary people demanding change. The conservative mentality of looking over the shoulder that often persists in conventional political life is slow to make change, even when the tide of public opinion and sentiment has long since decided such changes are necessary. This Bill is a catching up exercise as much as anything else in seeking to pass legislation and demanding that our laws reflect the wishes, views and sentiments of the people for equality.
Joan Collins, Independent, Dublin South Central
I wish to raise another issue that is important in the context of the education system. Atheist Ireland recently brought to my attention an issue that relates to public funding for chaplains in third level colleges. The issue first arose in the Dundalk Institute of Technology. Following research, it appears that Roman Catholic chaplains are being funded in a number of ITs, but not all of them, at an estimated cost to the State of €1 million per annum.
Article 44.2.2° of the Constitution states: “The State guarantees not to endow any religion.” There are of course schools with a religious ethos and patron and the Supreme Court has ruled that in such schools the State can fund chaplains, but institutes of technology are non-denominational. They do not by law have a religious ethos. They do not have a religious patron. Funding by the State of chaplains in ITs is clearly in breach of Article 44.2.2°. It is also in breach of the procurement guidelines for public bodies. The €1 million would be far better spent on the provision of qualified counsellors.
This shows there is a long way to go, both in law and in practice, before we have a proper separation of church and State. Surely it is a fundamental principle that any society which aspires to equality does not give preference to a particular religion or to a religious ethos over secular views. Colleagues have referred to the chilling effect of the legislation as it now applies. It says it all that when delegates from Atheist Ireland had a meeting with the Taoiseach, two of them could not be included in the photographs because they were afraid of being identified. That shows the degree of vulnerability felt by some public sector employees.
Joe Higgins, Socialist Party, Dublin West
The tabling of the Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill 2015 last night and tonight is a declaration of the great step forward taken when a large majority voted for marriage equality for gay people. It is a declaration that it must be taken forward to end all discrimination against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or otherwise members of the queer community and against people who are atheists.
We have a glaring anomaly that gay people have equality in marriage but not in employment, given that religious organisations or institutions such as schools or hospitals owned and managed by them can discriminate against people on the grounds that they might be deemed to be in breach of the ethos informing those organisations by virtue of being gay, atheist or having a lifestyle that might be deemed to be in breach. The Bill would end this situation.
The Labour Party Bill in the Seanad would, unfortunately, allow a continuation of discrimination in some fields, as my colleague, Deputy Paul Murphy will explain. Atheist teachers or non-believers could be discriminated against in some of the legislative measures that have been proposed over the past year.
Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 would be irrelevant if religious organisations did not control important public services such as health and education in this State. Some 96% of primary schools and 52% of secondary schools are under religious control or direction. That has a major impact on workers’ rights by virtue of this legislation. We are an increasingly diverse and secular society. We fully respect the right of every human being to practise the religion of his or her choice and to have full freedom of religious belief but there must not be religious control over education, health and other crucial services. They should be democratically run and funded to cater for the needs of our people. Religion should be a matter of personal choice and conviction rather than something endorsed, assisted or hindered by the State.
Paul Murphy, Anti Austerity Alliance, Dublin South West
The protest that took place this evening welcomed that our Bill will pass Second Stage but the protestors are now focusing on the weakness of Senator Bacik’s Bill. The first flaw in that Bill is the distinction it draws between services which are publicly funded and those which are not. We do not see why workers in services run by religious orders without public funding should be discriminated against or entitled to fewer employment and equality rights than workers in publicly funded services. Nowhere else in employment law is such a distinction made between publicly funded and privately funded workers.
The second flaw is that religion is maintained as grounds for discrimination regardless of whether public funds are involved, albeit with a higher bar in terms of requiring that the occupational requirement be genuine and legitimate. Even if a school is publicly funded, a religious order could make the case that a teacher’s religion is a justified reason for discrimination where he or she is teaching a religion class. This is a clear example of discrimination against atheists and those of a different religion to the institution which controls the school.
There should be no discrimination of any form in church-run health or education services. The only place where we think discrimination can be permitted is within the religious institution itself. That would meet the Constitution’s provisions on the right of religious denominations to run their own affairs. Those affairs do not extend to the operation of schools and hospitals but religious orders clearly have the right to discriminate in favour of people of their own religion when appointing priests or ministers.
The marriage equality referendum revealed to us the demand for equality. Those who mobilise for equality will not tolerate half measures. The “Yes” vote in the referendum was not for half equality. In its analysis of Senator Bacik’s Bill, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties made the point that equality is a binary state. Either one is equal or one is not. The council urged the Oireachtas to seize this opportunity to eradicate all forms of discrimination. We need full employment equality rather than a higher bar for discrimination; and we need that equality before next September.
3. More extracts from Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein TDs
Colm Keaveney, Fianna Fail, Galway East
We support the Bill. We know it seeks to end the possibility of discrimination by religious institutions on the grounds set out in equality legislation. As a republican party, we are committed to seeing discrimination particularly in our public services come to an end. Over the course of this Dáil, similar legislation proposed in the Seanad in 2012 was rejected by the Government. I welcome that the Minister of State has expressed support for the spirit of the legislation.
The current exemption clause in the legislation is quite odious and essentially allows an employer to apply discrimination. Section 37(1) of the Act provides for exemptions for religious orders for the purpose of discrimination. The House widely agrees that section should be removed or replaced in that it is not representative of the spirit of society and the recent success of the legislation. The proposed legislation would introduce a new section 37(1). We welcome the idea of having favourable treatment and eliminating the clause of actively discriminating based on the grounds set out in the equality legislation.
Freedom of religion is an important constitutional value and one that we, as a party, respect. However, religion should not be used as an opportunity to permit discrimination, particularly when it comes to employment. It is unacceptable that the current legislation would target a small minority of people to be effectively discriminated against. Irrespective of the workplace, surely the ethos of the workplace should be about acknowledging people’s differences and providing an opportunity to work with respect and in a harmonious environment.
I appreciate that there are concerns over the constitutional aspect of it. The test of the Oireachtas when it faces such legislation is to preserve the balance between the right of a religious denomination to manage its own affairs and maintain its own institutions for religious purposes, and the rights of citizens to have equality under the law.
Padraig Mac Lochlainn, Sinn Fein, Donegal North East
My party firmly believes that discrimination and intolerance should be challenged and stamped out wherever it exists. The old days of loopholes and shelters for any type of ignorance should be put behind us. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers have the right to have their private lives respected and we must repeal archaic loopholes that allow discrimination in the name of ethos as quickly as possible.
We all believe teachers should be judged, employed and treated on the basis of their teaching ability alone. The ending of this legalised discrimination is about more than teachers, as was alluded to by a number of speakers. The weight of laws such as section 37 impress upon gay, lesbian and transgender people the type of self-censorship which enable and propagate homophobia in general. Schools are where children form their identities, and learn and develop as individuals. It is paramount that our legislation and legal protections have tolerance, diversity and equality within them.
Removal of this provision will help to create a culture in schools in which homophobic bullying of teachers and students is no longer tolerated. If we are serious about combating homophobic bullying then we need address section 37 and ensure no loophole remains in existing legislation that will allow discrimination in any shape or form. This is the society for which Ireland voted on 22 May. It is the Ireland that all of us in this House have a duty to reflect in the legislation we enact.
Jonathan O’Brien, Sinn Fein, Cork North Central
It is not just schools. It also affects hospitals and other institutions that are run with a religious ethos. I consider myself to be religious. I go to Mass regularly. I bring my children up in a religious ethos but just because I am religious and attend Mass does not mean to say that people do not have rights and that I would not stand up for them. People’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with religion. This is about equality. Much has been done over the past number of weeks to enhance equality within Irish society. This section in the legislation is draconian and needs to be taken off the Statute Book very quickly.
This section in the legislation could technically discriminate against somebody who is divorced or a single mother so it is not just about the LGBT community. It goes beyond that even though the main focus is on the LGBT community. We should not lose sight of the fact that it also affects other people – single mothers, people who may be divorced or people with a different religious background. Due to the fact that we have not grasped the idea of separating Church and education, many schools have a Catholic ethos. Ireland is becoming very multicultural.
The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill will also help break down some of those barriers when it comes to schools of a particular religious ethos. We are hearing stories of parents who only have the option of the local Catholic school when they want to enrol children in school. Due to the fact that they may not be bringing up their children in that religious ethos, they feel forced to get their child christened so that they have an opportunity to enrol their child in that school.
4. More extracts from Government Party TDs
Jerry Buttimer, Fine Gael, Cork South Central
I am reminded of an incident in my younger days as a young teacher knowing that I was gay and being genuinely afraid because of the ethos of the school and the environment that existed. I wondered whether we would ever come to a day where teachers of any description would be free to be who they are. Thankfully, we are moving to that moment in time in our separation of Church and State where all citizens will be free to be who they are.
To many people outside our education system, section 37 may mean nothing but it casts a huge dark cloud over many within our education system. It is that chill factor that I and many of my colleagues felt where we had to hide who we were for a variety of reasons, one of which was this. I taught religion in a secondary school. One can imagine what would have happened had I ever dared to show certain characteristics, which I did at times to my cost.
It is not just people from the LGBT community who are affected. In theory, this hovers over people with a different religious perspective, ethos and belief to that of a religious body that operates within the workplace. Our society prevents discrimination and has many strong legal protections in place to protect against unequal treatment because of sexual orientation and religious belief.
In celebrating the 22nd anniversary of the Unfair Dismissals Act, it is time that we ensure that a person cannot be fired or even deprived of promotion because of their sexual orientation. The Employment Equality Act was passed 17 years ago this month adding to the protections on the grounds of sexual orientation. We can and will build on these transformative pieces of legislation. We can make them fairer and better.
Derek Nolan, Labour Party, Galway West
When one looks at the wording of this, one cannot help but be struck by how we are still grappling with historical legacies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when this State and its institutions were being put in place. The system of educational provision was outsourced. There was such distrust in the institutions of the State that it was required that our health and education systems would be run by religious institutions.
If I were to go back in time and have a say in the way the education system operates, I would not be happy with our model. Neither would I be happy with the compromise model as suggested by the forum on pluralism and patronage, which is to divest schools and create Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, non-denominational schools and so forth. I do not think that works. It is segregation; it creates differences based on beliefs and puts people into boxes or separate institutions.
If I had my way, I would follow the German model, having worked there as a teacher for a year. In Germany, instruction for all religions takes place within the school. One of the classes is religion and for that period, students are segregated but they come back together again for English, mathematics and so forth. That is a much better approach but unfortunately, unless there is a very serious redesign of our Constitution, we will not be able to do that. Four years after starting the divestment process, very limited progress has happened which suggests that trying to do anything more radical will not be possible in the short term.
Robert Dowds, Labour Party, Dublin Mid West
We live in a changed world. To give a personal twist on this issue, when I was in my twenties I did the graduate teaching course in St. Patrick’s in Drumcondra. On a number of occasions I had a dispute with the lecturer in religion about whether people should be obliged to teach denominational religion if they did not have the religious faith concerned. It was most interesting that while nearly all of my classmates agreed with what I was arguing, none of them would speak. It was possible for me to speak because I happened to be part of a minority. I knew I would not be looking for a job in a Catholic school so I did not feel any nervousness in arguing that viewpoint. I believe we are in a changed place. I cannot envisage that being the case now.
I agree with the remarks of the pervious speaker, Deputy Nolan, on the teaching of religion. The German model is quite a good model if we could start from scratch. We have the great advantage of tradition and a determination on the part of schools to ensure that people are accepted and treated with respect. In view of that I am optimistic that the path forward on this legislation will be positive and beneficial for the country.
Aine Collins, Fine Gael, Cork North West
The recent referendum reminded me that the vast majority of people want to see equality for their fellow LGBT citizens. It also reminded me that our Constitution remains a deeply personal part of Irish life. Constitutional debate in Ireland engages people in a way not seen in any other country. We are very attached to our Constitution. The question of religious ethos and employment law involves a considerable number of constitutional rights, all of which we must talk about and some of which we must change.
Everyone is entitled to the freedom to practice their own religion but we must bear in mind those of other beliefs and none. We must be open to people expressing their opinion but people must also be allowed to be open about their relationships. Freedom of religion and assembly, the right to privacy and to earn a living, freedom of expression and conscience and the right to freedom from harassment and discrimination are all fundamental to our society.
Dan Neville, Fine Gael, Limerick
The Bill seeks to remove the existing exemption by imposing a stricter test for discrimination on educational or medical institutions which are in receipt of public funding compared with those which are privately funded. In the case of more favourable treatment on religious grounds, the Bill prohibits this from giving rise to discrimination on any other ground and requires that a person’s religious belief be a genuine occupational requirement. In the case of action taken by an institution to prevent its ethos from being undermined, the Bill requires any such action to be objectively justifiable, having regard to the nature of the employment itself.
The Bill will require amendment because it appears to conflict with the constitutional protection for freedom of religion and of religious groups to establish their own institutions of the type at issue here. Furthermore, it does not provide any guidance on how to resolve disputes between employees and employers. It would remain the case that an employer has the right to take action against employees who act against the employer’s best interests and disputes would, following the deletion of the existing provision, fall to be resolved under generally applicable labour relations law. The Bill requires some tweaking but that is understandable, if not to be expected because every Act that is passed by the Houses of Parliament is amended.
John Lyons, Labour Party, Dublin North West
The Government’s preferred option to address the issues raised by section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act is to do so through the Bill that myself and a number of my Labour Party colleagues put forward and to make a number of amendments thereto which will ensure that it is robust and correct. Clearly, the Act was originally drafted with the best of intentions and the aim was to strike a balance but as we found out, the protection of rights was not really working. I saw this at first hand.
I want to keep it simple and do not want to go on longer than I should. I genuinely believe that no person should ever live their life in the shadow of society, whether that be at home, in their community as they walk about or in the workplace, including in the staffroom for many of the people we are talking about tonight, at the nurses’ station in the Mater Hospital, in a nursing home or anywhere else. That fear of being oneself should never be there. Most people are brave enough to overcome that.
My own Bill addressed the issue slightly differently than this Bill. It looked at respecting the balance between the constitutional protection of the freedom of religion – regardless of whether we like it, many schools are run by religious groups – and at the same time allowing the individual to be completely protected in those situations. I will support whatever solution gets us to that. I appreciate the opportunity to speak tonight. Most importantly we need to get this done as fast as possible. We have waited far too long.
Dominic Hannigan, Labour Party, Meath East
There is a Bill in the Seanad, the Employment Equality (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2013, prepared by the previous speaker, the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, Deputy Conway and I – all Labour Party Deputies – and by Senator Bacik. That is working its slow and arduous way through the House.
The Government is drafting amendments to improve the proposed legislation. From speaking to the Minister of State, I know he intends to push those amendments through as soon as possible so that the Seanad Committee Stage can be taken, hopefully before the summer recess. We are very hopeful that we will see changes to section 37 of the Employment Equality Act within the next six weeks.
We introduced that Bill in 2013 because of the so-called chill factor in employment laws. The current situation allows for discrimination against people by religious-run organisations. For certain sections of society, not just members of the LGBT community but also potentially people who might be divorced or unmarried parents, if it is felt that their lifestyle does not fit in with the ethos of the religious organisation running a particular institution, they run the risk of being removed and fired from that job legally. That such discrimination still exists in our society at this stage suggests that previous governments were remiss in not changing the laws to reflect the changing nature of Irish society.
It is very positive that there seems to be a groundswell of opinion from Members on all sides of the House to try to make changes to this legislation. The Government has been very progressive on issues such as this. The repeal of section 37 was contained in our manifesto in 2011. We managed to get it into the programme for Government and the Government will push forward with the Bill we introduced in 2013 to address the issue.
4. Contributions from Government Ministers
I will analyse in another post the Government Ministers’ responses, and the flaws in the Bacik Bill that they support. Atheist Ireland has previously highlighted those flaws when that Bill was first raised.