The Minister for Education and the Department of Justice are blaming each other for the continued discrimination against atheists in State-funded schools.
Atheist Ireland has recently met the Department of Justice about this, and will soon be meeting the Department of Education, following up on our meeting with the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Minister for Education.
The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, said today that she didn’t have the legal power to say to schools that “if you are not baptised or not part of that particular religion that they don’t have to take you in. It is legislation that comes from the Department of Justice and Equality.”
But at two separate meetings in July with Atheist Ireland, Deaglan O Briain, of the Equality Section of the Department of Justice, forcefully told us that the Department of Education, and not Justice, is responsible for how the education system is run.
The Department of Justice also said that the Government is constitutionally obliged to allow religious schools to give priority to their coreligionists, regardless of whether or not the State funds those schools, and that they cannot constitutionally go any further in removing the exemptions that State-funded schools with a religious ethos have from our equality laws.
The Department of Justice says that this position is based on legal advice that they have, but that they will not publish, in order to protect and buttress freedom of religion.
However, the 1995 Constitutional Review Group said Article 44.2.4, which sanctions state funding of denominational schools, was also meant to protect the rights of minorities. However, over the years, those rights have been undermined.
The Department of Justice also said that Ireland had negotiated an exemption from the European Equality Directive specifically in order to enable schools to continue this practice.
When Atheist Ireland said that the Constitution does not oblige the State to run an education system based on religious discrimination, the Department of Justice insisted that that is entirely a matter for the Department of Education, and that the Department of Justice can only pass laws that reflect what exists in the education system and the Constitution.
The Minister for Education also said today that “There are no proposals to change it but I think it is an issue that needs to be debated and discussed in the next government, in view of how Ireland has changed.”
But why should it have to wait until the next government to debate and discuss it? There are currently two Bills going through the Oireachtas that relate directly to this discrimination. Surely this is the exact time to resolve these issues?
The Admissions to Schools Bill claims to bring equality in access to schools, but it retains the right of schools to discriminate on the ground of religion, using the euphemism “lawful oversubscription criteria” for giving priority to children with baptism certificates.
And the Section 37 Amendment Bill will stop schools from discriminating against teachers who are LGBT, but it retains the right of schools to discriminate against teachers who are atheist or the wrong religion.
Atheist Ireland is also seeking a commitment from all political parties to bring about religious equality in State-funded schools. If they agree with the Department of Justice that this requires Constitutional change, then we will seek another equality referendum.