Saturday 24 February 2018

Is it right for schools to ask for baptism certificates?

Support is growing for discrimination against children on the grounds of religion to be banned.

When places are in heavy demand, schools can ask for baptism certs or other proof of a child's religious affiliation
When places are in heavy demand, schools can ask for baptism certs or other proof of a child's religious affiliation
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It is an issue that will come up repeatedly in the coming years. The powers-that-be will have to decide what role religion plays in state-funded schools.

The growing population of atheists is now stepping up a campaign to stop what they see as discrimination against their children in schools. And they have been joined by some teachers, who feel their lives are hampered by a law that prohibits them from "undermining the religious ethos" of a school.

In most schools, particularly at primary level, there are pupils from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. 93pc of primary schools have Catholic or Church of Ireland patronage, but these schools generally welcome those of other faiths and none.

But when places are in heavy demand, schools can ask for baptism certs or other proof of a child's religious affiliation.

In recent days, Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association met the Taoiseach and called for this practice to be banned.

He says some parents have been forced into "pragmatic baptisms" in order to get their child into a popular school.

"Ireland has changed in recent decades," Mr Whiteside says. "We are a much more secular country, but the education system has not changed to reflect that.

"One-third of couples now get married in civil ceremonies, but their needs as far as education for their children are not being met.

"Some will have pragmatic baptisms, but many others feel strongly that it is just not good enough in State-funded schools."

Even among some of the clergy in the main churches there is an acceptance that the present system will have to change.

The Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork Dr Paul Colton told the conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network in recent days: "I can foresee the day may well come when a model of patronage based overwhelmingly on religious denomination may have to be replaced."

However, Bishop Colton doubts whether the new system could ever be exclusively secular in a country where 84pc of the people define themselves as Catholic.

Bishop Colton supports a change to the controversial section 37 of the Employment Equality Act of 1998, which says a school can take any action to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from "undermining the religious ethos of the institution".

This could be interpreted as living openly in any kind of sexual relationship (heterosexual or homosexual) that is not sanctioned by the church, or publicly advocating policies that go against church teaching.

The law is currently being amended by the Government.

Sandra Irwin-Gowran of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network says: "This law creates fear not just among gay and lesbian people, but divorced people or unmarried parents."

It is unclear whether religious ethos played a role in the decision by Coláiste Eoin in Dublin to postpone a recent seminar for students on homophobic bullying. The school had hosted seminars about homophobic bullying before, but on this occasion it had received written correspondence about it from concerned parents.

In its statement on the issue, the school said the board of management of the school had to seek the advice from "Catholic management representative bodies". The seminar will now be held later this year.

Bishop Colton says the issue of religion in schools is likely to crop up repeatedly as the ­population becomes more diverse.

Future governments will have to decide what kind of education model we have.

With a wide variety of religions represented in the population and a growing number of atheists, should we have segregated schools to reflect each of these faiths or belief systems?

In the 2011 census, nearly 50,000 people identified themselves as Muslim and 45,000 as Orthodox. Should the number of schools reflect these growing populations?

Or should we have a catch-all model of national school that does not discriminate on the grounds of religious faith.

Father Michael Drumm, the Catholic church's main spokesman on education, accepts that there needs to be some change to the schooling system to reflect the diversity of the population. But he also believes that faith-based schools should continue.

He says in some areas there is local opposition to a school changing from Catholic to another type of school.

"Eighty per cent of Catholic schools accept all-comers and admission isn't really an issue," he says.

"In the 20pc of schools that are oversubscribed, there are a number of admission criteria including whether there are siblings in the school, geography, and (in the case of second-level schools) whether the pupil went to a feeder school. Religious affiliation also may come into it and that is valid."

Father Drumm says: "The key division in Irish education is social rather than religious. Catholic schools are the most inclusive in the country."

A code of conduct on bullying issued by the Government in 2013 says schools must deal explicitly with homophobic bullying in its education strategies.

Father Drumm says Catholic school fully support measures against homophobic bullying.

Irish Independent

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