THE battle lines are being drawn between Catholic bishops and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn over the future of primary schools.
Moves to reduce the dominance of the Church in primary education will see the handover of some schools to other patron bodies.
But the church is seeking guarantees about the protection of the ethos of schools that remain under Catholic control.
Last year the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism produced a blueprint on a process for divesting Catholic schools to other patrons, and on ways to ensure that denominational schools were more inclusive.
One strand involves the handover of Catholic schools to another patron body in areas where parents express a demand for greater choice.
Following surveys late last year, the Catholic Church has been asked to divest a school in each of five towns and suburbs and the Department of Education is currently running similar surveys in a further 38 areas.
The other element of change is concerned with laying down new rules for the treatment of religion in all primary schools to ensure that they are inclusive.
That is to be subject to a public consultation process that will get under way after the parental surveys are completed in February.
That will mean an overlap between the two strands of the process and, while there is no formal link, a leading Catholic educationalist yesterday called for a trade-off.
Professor Eamonn Conway said that no Catholic primary schools should be handed over without firm guarantees that the ethos of the remaining schools would be respected.
Prof Conway is head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and a priest of the Tuam archdiocese. He said that under one proposal, Catholic schools would be forced to display all religious symbols along with their own and to vet hymns and prayers to ensure they were sufficiently 'inclusive'.
He also challenged the proposal to delete Rule 68, which obliges national schools to ensure that a religious spirit underpins all their work.
He challenged proposals to weaken Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which protects the right of religious organisations, including schools, to employ only individuals who will respect the ethos of their employer.
Prof Conway also said a proposed new programme for primary schools, Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB), should not be made mandatory because it "could teach pupils in a secularist view of religion".
Catholic bishops also used the launch of Catholic Schools Week yesterday to insist that any change to the ethos must not undermine the faith of school-going children.
Bishop Brendan Kelly of Achonry said it would be a "terrible travesty" for children "if a natural part of who they are is not acknowledged and nurtured in our schools".
His concerns were echoed by Bishop Jones of Elphin who told the young congregation: "It is because of you that we are all concerned about Catholic education in our schools."