Tuesday 24 September 2019

Religious monopoly on schools has no place in a republic

'Even the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has said that the status quo is no longer tenable'
'Even the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has said that the status quo is no longer tenable'

Rob Sadlier

There is a country where religious institutions have a near-total monopoly on primary school patronage; a country where parents have their children admitted to a religion just so that they may access the local school; a country where teachers feel compelled to profess certain beliefs when seeking a job or promotion.

Believe it or not, this country is a 'republic'.

This country is Ireland.

In 2015, 96pc of primary schools are under the patronage of religious institutions, 93pc under the patronage of the Catholic Church. These are anomalies compared with other developed countries.

Even the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has said that the status quo is no longer tenable. He has said that progress has been "far too slow" and called for the process of divestment of school patronage to be accelerated.

Observing this process has been like watching an uphill slow bicycle race on a glacier.

Despite the recommendations of the 2012 report on school patronage in the primary sector and the 2012 Department of Education surveys - which showed demand for a change of patron in 28 of the 43 areas surveyed - to date just three schools have been transferred to non-religious patrons.

Educate Together says it is under "unprecedented pressure from parents all over the country to provide places in our schools".

The number of people in Ireland with no religion increased by 400pc between 1991 and 2011. The 2012 Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism survey, covering 57 countries across five continents, found that religiosity is falling faster in Ireland than any country in the west (only in Vietnam was religiosity falling faster). Last year, 28pc of marriages were non-religious, 39.1pc in Dublin.

However, unbaptised children are having to wait until school waiting lists have disappeared before they are admitted.

People are having their children baptised just so that they will be admitted to the local school. I hear it said that parents do not have to send their children to religious-controlled schools, but the reality is that many do not have a choice as there is often no alternative in the area.

Schools are entitled to accept baptised children from other catchment areas before they accept unbaptised children from their own. This amounts to State-sponsored discrimination.

Teachers' freedom of conscience is threatened too. Seeking a job or promotion can be precarious if you do not believe what you're told. Earlier this year, a teacher in a Catholic primary school was awarded €54,000 compensation after a nun asked her "what about the homos?" in an interview.

The Equal Status Act 2000 gives schools a licence to discriminate against children on the basis of religion. Religious-controlled schools have the best of both worlds: they are publicly funded, but they can discriminate against children on religious grounds.

It's 'first come, first served' if you are Catholic, but 'back of the queue' if you are not. Imagine if an unbaptised child had to wait until all the Catholic children were admitted before they were seen to at the local hospital. It would be unconscionable. However, publicly funded schools are free to discriminate on these very grounds.

Why should education be different to other public services? Schools say they are entitled to protect their ethos, but they may as well be talking about the colour of the wind. Irish Catholicism is a chimera in a tailspin.

Defenders of the status quo argue that the Government should build more schools, but fiscal realities are likely to frustrate any such designs. Acceleration of the divestment process must be part of the solution, as even Diarmuid Martin has said.

As the centenary of the 1916 Proclamation approaches, with its guarantee of religious liberty, we must ask why, nearly 100 years later, this guarantee has not been fulfilled. This is a republic only in name until this issue is addressed.

Rob Sadlier is a solicitor and writer

Irish Independent

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