David Quinn: Labour's education policy is to attack religious freedom

Published 18/02/2011 | 05:00

IN last week's column I wrote about Labour policy with regard to abortion and managed to "deeply depress" Senator Fiona O'Malley and drive Michael D Higgins into a fit of incandescent rage on Newstalk radio.

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But facts are facts, and Labour does want to legislate for abortion.

This week, I want to turn my attention to Labour's education policy and, specifically, its policy concerning denominational schools.

First of all though, a general observation about denominational schools.

Just about everyone is agreed that there are too many such schools in this country and, in particular, there are too many Catholic schools. There are historical reasons for this but today the number of Catholic schools outstrips the true level of demand for them.

This isn't good for either Catholic, or non-Catholic, parents.

Non-Catholics often have to send their children to a school they don't like because it's the only school in the area.

But the schools themselves, knowing this, and knowing also that many of the teachers are non-practising, end up watering down their Catholic ethos, which is no good for Catholic parents either.

So this problem needs to be tackled, although finding the right way to do so won't be easy.

Labour does not want to bring an end to denominational schools, or to public funding of such schools.

Many Labour Party members would like to do this, but it isn't party policy yet.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail also favour continued public funding of denominational schools, but all three parties want to reduce the number of these schools, as does the Catholic Church itself, if a way can be found to do so.

After this, Labour policy becomes much more problematic. There are actually two ways to destroy denominational education.

One is to strip church-run schools of public funding, which would leave only a small, private sector.

The second way is to force them to water down their ethos so much that they would be denominational in little more than name.

If this isn't the intent of Labour policy, then it would be its long-term effect.

One of the chief ways in which a school preserves its ethos is through hiring only those teachers who will respect the ethos. They don't have to believe in the ethos, but they must respect it in both word and deed. This is entirely right and proper.

For example, even if I was suitably qualified in every other way, Labour would never employ me as its press officer because I don't believe in the Labour Party. I am a known opponent and that is enough to disqualify me from consideration for such a job.

Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act protects the right of religious organisations, including schools, to employ only those people who will respect their ethos.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) wants this section repealed because they say it permits 'discrimination', but it isn't discrimination in the sense they mean if a teacher's beliefs or lifestyle are relevant to the job.

Labour isn't too far behind the INTO in this regard. It wants to amend Section 37 so that religious schools will be forced to employ openly homosexual teachers.

This would make it almost impossible for schools to properly teach traditional sexual morality and so it would be a direct attack on religious freedom.

Furthermore, it would probably be unconstitutional.

Article 44 of the Constitution protects religious freedom. In 1997 the constitutionality of Section 37 was tested and upheld, and the then Attorney General argued that the Employment Equality Act had to contain this section of the Act for it to be constitutional.

Here's the irony; Labour was in power then. Labour's Mervyn Taylor was responsible for Section 37.

But, since then, Labour has become more hostile to religious freedom and we can be pretty sure it will become even more hostile as time goes on, especially if the Ivana Bacik wing of the Labour Party gets its way.

Labour's manifesto also promises to "negotiate the transfer of school infrastructure currently owned by the 18 religious orders cited in the Ryan report".

Labour does say that the patronage of the school would remain as it is now. But the schools in question aren't owned by the orders anymore. They are now in the hands of various trusts.

How free are those trusts to hand over their property? Probably not very free at all.

Like Fine Gael, Labour promises to set up a forum to discuss the future of Irish education.

Would Labour try to undermine the admissions policies of denominational schools on the grounds that they, too, are 'discriminatory'?

If so, that would be another attack on the freedom of those schools.

Labour's policy on denominational schools is by no means as bad as its policy on abortion. But it's bad enough.

It begins the process of undermining the ethos of such schools, irrespective of what Catholics, and other religious parents, might actually want.

Irish Independent

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