Government’s new protections for teachers would still discriminate against atheist teachers

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.”

Government’s new protections for teachers would still discriminate against atheist teachers

4 thoughts on “Government’s new protections for teachers would still discriminate against atheist teachers

  1. Keep on their backs.

    This stuff is incredibly valuable.

    Discussions such as these only crop up once in a generation. It’s sort of a one shot deal. It’s vital to have an impact while it is a live agenda item otherwise it’ll be twenty or thirty before the digital dust is blown off the records in muniments and the issue is resurrected.

    I know that AI are all over the Government like a cheap suit; please keep it up. It’s tempting to count it as an achievement that AI’s voice is being discussed at Government circles, but actual change is needed.

    I feel a sense of confidence that such will happen.

  2. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

    What cannot be said is that AI haven’t prepared a rigorous and balalnced case.

    A question: is there some degree of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in operation in the schools?

    I know that it’s no solution and that the policy was rightly eliminated from the US military by Obama. It essentially is a deceit and still reduces atheist staff to being a tolerated presence rather than people who have equality in all respects, not least job security.

    I know of a couple of teachers who are definitely atheist. I must contact them and see what their situation is, whether they need to pay lip-service etc to any expression of religious ethos etc.

    Even if a convincing case can be made that the policy works in practice that argument in itself can be used to bolster the point that atheists can form part of the education system without resultant destruction of the spiritual lives of generations of Irish students.

    The counter-argument would run “Ah, but when they work in the current system they are effectively being subject to a control which prevents them from expressing their atheism.”

    This is easily countered by saying that in a properly secular system *all* teachers would be so controlled.

    It’s a subject which is off enormous interest to me, given that I have two young children being educated in French schools.The law on secularism in education is absolute and binding.

    When we first employed a child-minder when the kids were toddlers she was a Muslim woman. She thought them some basic words of Arabic, but any attempt at religious direction was strictly banned – even by a child-minder. Interestingly, she was also permitted by the local mosque to prepare a staple for children over here: mashed spuds with chopped sliced ham. In order to obtain a licence to mind kids she had to show that she was not subject to such religious strictures. Even some Imams can be pragmatic in assessing the employment requirements of their flock.

    Chesterton wrote once that there is a French mindset which pursues logic all the way to an almost fanatical level. He wrote in the story “The Secret Garden” of a confluence of suspects of different nationalities – including a rather mystic Irishman. As always, religion is not far off the radar with Chesterton. The secularism of the French character is not portrayed kindly.

    I see it in action almost daily. It’s a comfort to know that even in a strongly Christian (well, Catholic) country my children are not being subject to indoctrination from people who are major authority figures in their lives.

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