The Bill to amend Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act – that allows religious schools and hospitals to discriminate on the ground of religion – was discussed in the Seanad this afternoon.
Senators Katherine Zappone and Averil Power made strong contributions on the importance of any sanctions being related to specific work-related conduct that is an occupational requirement of the specific job, and on privately-funded bodies being held to the same standards of non-discrimination as publicly-funded bodies would be.
Senator David Norris endorsed the UN Human Rights Committee’s call that Ireland should amend this law in a way that bars all forms of discrimination in employment in the fields of education and health.
Minister Aodhan O Riordan said that the Government will be proposing its own amendments to the Bill, which it says will strengthen the protection of employees, and those amendments will be discussed at the next stage of the Bill, Report Stage, next Tuesday.
However, based on his contribution today, these proposals would still make a distinction between a person’s status on the religion ground, for example as an atheist, and a person’s status on any of the other non-discrimination grounds. We can examine this in more detail when the Government publishes its amendments.
The Government’s amendments
Minister Aodhan O Riordan said that the Government amendments will oblige relevant employers in religious-run schools and hospitals to show:
- That favourable treatment of an employee or prospective employee is limited to the religion ground.
- That the religion ground shall not be regarded as justified unless it is:
- Rationally and strictly related to the institutional ethos; and
- A response to conduct of a person which undermines or would undermine the religious ethos of the institution, rather than being a response to that person’s status under any of the other anti-discrimination grounds, such as sexual orientation or marital status or unmarried parent or divorcee; and
- Proportionate to the conduct of the employee or prospective employee, having regard to alternative action that the employer could take.
While this is an advance on the protections in the current version of the Bill, it does not reach the standards of Ireland’s international human rights obligations, which would involve barring all forms of discrimination in the fields of education and health.
When we see the exact wording of the Government’s amendments, Atheist Ireland will produce a briefing document for parliamentarians before the Report Stage of the Bill next Tuesday.
UN Human Rights standards
Atheist Ireland has raised this specific Bill with both major United Nations human rights committees.
In July 2014 the UN Human Rights Committee concluded:
“The Committee is concerned that under Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Acts, religious-owned institutions, including in the fields of education and health, can discriminate against employees or prospective employees to protect the religious ethos of the institution (arts.2, 18, 25 and 27).”
It said that Ireland should:
“amend Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Acts in a way that bars all forms of discrimination in employment in the fields of education and health.”
In June 2015 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said that Ireland should:
“Take all necessary measures to bring all relevant laws, including the Equal Status Acts 2001 and the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2015 in line with the international human rights standards.”