The Government tonight closed down a debate on ending religious discrimination in schools, by rushing through the final three stages of an Equality Bill in just over an hour, and then voting to betray its own pledge in the Programme for Government to protect atheist and minority faith teachers from religious discrimination.
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 now formal 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.
The Government has now effectively passed a new ‘equality’ law that protects Catholic LGBT teachers from discrimination, at the expense of reinforcing the right to discriminate against teachers who are atheists or members of minority faiths, and that does not even address the other aspects of religious discrimination in Irish schools.
The Government also voted, by 77 to 26, to defeat the only amendment that was discussed, which would have included a provision to repeal Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act, which is the exemption that allows religious schools to discriminate in access on the ground of religion.
Atheist Ireland will raise these issues again when the Schools Admissions Bill comes before the Dail, and we will be more skeptical at the next election of pledges by Fine Gael and the Labour Party that they will protect the rights of atheists and minority faith members.
The only way to protect equally the human rights of all in our education system, consistently with the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, is to tackle simultaneously the four areas of our Schools Equality PACT, in which PACT is an acronym for Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching.
Government undermines democracy with guillotine
The procedure that the Government adopted completely undermines democracy. The Dail debate started just before 8pm, and was guillotined at 9pm. Opposition TDs, including most comprehensively the Socialist Party/AAA, had proposed amendments to address many key aspects of religious inequality in the education system, but the Government closed down the debate before most of these amendments could be reached.
The only amendment that was discussed was the first one, which referred to repealing Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act. Even that discussion did not stay on topic, with some TDs raising points related to other amendments that they knew would not be otherwise reached, and some TDs declining to contribute to ensure there would be time for a vote to be taken.
The Government then voted down that amendment by 77 votes to 26, with Equality Minister Aodhan O Roirdan saying that there are Constitutional and technical reasons why the Government could not accept it, that it is not an issue for this Bill, and that the purpose of this Bill is to protect members of the LGBT community and others – but not, apparently, the atheist and minority faith teachers who they pledged to protect in the Programme for Government.
Other Schools Equality PACT issues not reached
Amendments that were not even discussed included discrimination against atheist and minority faith teachers, the patronage system based on religious ethos, and recommendations from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission about religious opt-outs and delivering the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner without indoctrination.
All of these issues together comprise Atheist Ireland’s Schools Equality PACT, where PACT is an acronym for Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching, the four areas where changes in the law are needed to bring about an education system that expects equally everybody’s human rights.
These issues will not go away. The Government still has a Schools Admissions Bill coming through the Dail, and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which is the statutory body for protecting our human rights, has asked the Government to amend that Bill to minimum standards for religious opt-outs and delivering the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner without indoctrination.
Also, there is a General Election coming up. 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:
The Labour Party replied:
We believe that all organisations, religious or secular, should be treated equally. We acknowledge the enormous amount of work that many organisations undertake in this society. In relation to employment legislation we simply believe this should apply equally to all.
Both Government parties have now formally broken those pledges. We will be more skeptical of similar pledges next time around.