PROTESTANT communities are "shell-shocked" by the discrimination against their schools, the four main Protestant Churches said last night.
They strongly criticised budgetary changes that are now hitting their schools and warned of closures if the cuts continue.
In a strongly worded position paper, the Committee on Management for Protestant Secondary Schools suggests the treatment of their schools is unconstitutional.
It also warns that there is widespread anger within the community. Attempts to portray Protestants schools as elitist institutions has added insult, says the paper, which laments what it calls the clear lack of understanding of the Protestant sector by the Department of Education and Science. The fact that the McCarthy 'Bord Snip Nua' Report should seek to further target Protestant schools is unacceptable, says the paper from the Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian and Quaker communities.
Spokeswoman Eleanor Petrie said that "there is a misconception that Protestant fee-charging schools are elite enclaves catering for the gilded youth of wealthy families. The reality is that Protestant schools provide a secondary education, in tune with the Protestant religious ethos, to all families, irrespective of means.
"The dispersed nature of the Protestant community in Ireland means that, for many, boarding is a necessity, not a luxury. The reality is that the economics of fee-charging Protestant Secondary are totally different to our Catholic counterparts".
There are 26 Protestant second-level schools in the country -- five of them are comprehensive and do not charge. Most of the remaining 21 have boarding pupils and charge.
The paper says the Protestant voluntary schools must charge fees if they are to accommodate boarders and to preserve the appropriate ethos for a minority community with distinctive beliefs and traditions.
Protestant secondary schools in the voluntary sector do not receive capitation grants directly. Instead, this money is channelled to the Secondary Education Committee for dispersal to families on a means-tested basis, so that Protestant children may attend a Protestant school. This enables the Protestant secondary school system to be inclusive, and to facilitate socio-economic diversity as a matter of course.
The McCarthy Report had recommended further reductions in State aid for fee-charging schools but the Protestant Churches said this showed a failure to understand how their school system operated.
"It is misguided and, if implemented, will be discriminatory," said the paper.
"Discrimination against a minority religious community is not acceptable in a country that takes pride in calling itself a Republic," it adds.
But a spokesperson for Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe said no decisions had yet been taken on the McCarthy Report which was being considered by the Government.
The spokesperson added that Protestant fee-charging schools would continue to receive the Protestant block grant which amounts to €6.25m -- this payment covers capitation, tuition and boarding grants.