Wednesday 21 February 2018

Schools' religion barrier is 'untenable' - commissioner

Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Laws allowing Irish schools to use religion as part of their admission criteria are no longer tenable, a commissioner at the Council of Europe has warned.

Human rights commissioner Nils Muiznieks criticised the Government's response to the issue. He said it was putting forward long-term solutions, such as building more schools, which would be of no benefit to children currently being discriminated against.

In a hard-hitting report, the commissioner also criticised our abortion laws and an article of the Constitution which presumes women occupy primary carer roles in the home.

Ireland is one of 47 member states of the council, which makes recommendations on human rights, democracy and the rule of law across Europe.

In a report published yesterday, Mr Muiznieks recommended that an exemption to the Equal Status Act, allowing state-funded schools to use the religion of a child as part of their admission criteria, be removed. "I don't think it is tenable in this day and age," he told the Irish Independent.

Mr Muiznieks said it was a particular feature of the Irish education system that the vast majority of primary schools and the majority of secondary schools were owned and run by the Catholic Church.

"To be honest, I don't think I have encountered anything similar anywhere else, a symbiotic relationship between a major religious denomination and the State in terms of providing an essential service such as education," he said.

"This whole set-up seems more and more dated as time moves on and Irish society changes, and you have more and more people who are not active believers and you have people of different faiths moving and resettling or being relocated to the country.

"In the end, it is the State's obligation to ensure that all kids have equal access to mainstream education. It is not fulfilling that duty at the moment."

Although the Government is seeking the divestment of religious-run schools to multi or non-denominational patrons, the process has been very slow, and there have only been a handful of transfers.

Mr Muiznieks also called for a review of the content and the way religious education is taught in secondary schools, and for this to be modified to ensure it genuinely covered all religious cultures.

The commissioner was also critical of laws allowing schools to give priority to the children of past pupils.

He said this was having a discriminatory impact on Travellers, migrant children and children of parents with disabilities.

His report also highlighted what it described as "de facto ethnic segregation", with a high concentration of students from a minority ethnic background, including Travellers, in DEIS schools.

The report said that half of Traveller children were in DEIS schools.

Figures also showed a much higher prevalence of migrants in DEIS schools than non-DEIS schools.

Mr Muiznieks, a Latvian-American political scientist, compiled the report following a visit to Ireland last November.

His report called for the removal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, saying it was "preventing comprehensive reform to the legal regime governing the termination of pregnancy in Ireland".

He said abortion bans did not result in fewer abortions, but mainly led to clandestine abortions, which were more traumatic and increased maternal mortality.

Irish Independent

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