Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013 [Seanad]: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, between lines 26 and 27, to insert the following:“Amendment of Equal Status Act 20002. Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 is hereby repealed.”.
In the context of this legislation, I propose that Members move to amend the Equal Status Act 2000. I accept that the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013 before Members primarily pertains to removing some elements of discrimination in employment law, albeit, unfortunately, not all such elements, as Members will discuss later in the debate. While that is the primary purpose of the Bill, it also deals with a number of other miscellaneous matters. In that context, I propose that Members seek to amend the Equal Status Act 2000. The reason I do so is that while there are significant issues about discrimination against teachers, for example, and other employees, Members are aware that in the area of education there is significant discrimination on religious grounds which really is indefensible, given the stage our republic has reached and the age of our democracy. It is outrageous that people are discriminated against and prevented from attending their local school on religious grounds.
We have an extraordinary situation where a great many parents believe they have no choice but to have their newborn babies baptised if they are to have any chance to get them into their local school. I am sure the Minister of State agrees that this is intolerable. While he nods to the comments I am making, it is very unfortunate that the Government is not taking the opportunity to reform legislation in this area, which reform is long overdue. For that reason, I strongly urge the Minister of State to support the amendment. This is an opportunity for him to do so and I certainly expect him to do the right thing and vote in accordance with what I understand are his beliefs.
The Equal Status Act 2000 allows very definite discrimination on religious grounds. Section 7(3)(c) states:
(3) An educational establishment does not discriminate under subsection (2)by reason only that...(c) where the establishment is a school providing primary or post-primary education to students and the objective of the school is to provide education in an environment which promotes certain religious values, it admits persons of a particular religious denomination in preference to others or it refuses to admit as a student a person who is not of that denomination and, in the case of a refusal, it is proved that the refusal is essential to maintain the ethos of the school...
In this day and age it is indefensible to still have such legislation in the Statute Book. There is a very strong case to be made that this provision is in conflict with the constitutional provision which I will discuss. On any ground that is not an acceptable provision in the context of State-funded schools. It means that in the case of at least 20% of schools parents and their children are being discriminated against by virtue of their religious beliefs. I do not know how any Government could stand over this.
There is a clear demand for equality in education. In any modern democracy this must be provided for. It is simply not acceptable that a child can be refused a place in a local school purely on the basis of religion. The education system should reflect and respect the diversity of Irish society and the citizens it is supposed to serve. The Government has a responsibility to ensure all children can access State-funded school places in their locality. It is simply unacceptable that parents are required to have their children baptised for the sole purpose of getting them into their local school.
Article 44.2.3° of the Constitution states: "The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status". However, the Equal Status Act allows discrimination on these grounds when it comes to school enrolment.
Overall, progress in ensuring greater pluralism in the education system has been painfully slow. The Government should now set out a clear transition plan to move away from having 96% of State-funded schools denominationally controlled. We need to move rapidly to a system that reflects the diversity of Irish society. It is not enough to say people can choose an education for their children in keeping with their religious beliefs, yet when these schools are not available within a reasonable distance they have no choice but to attend a denominational school, if they are lucky enough to get in. As we know, of course, in many cases, they cannot get in, unless their parents are prepared to have them baptised, very often in direct conflict with their own belief system. Having that kind of regime is intolerable.
Several people are leading the way in campaigning to bring about the necessary reform. I wish the same commitment to a modern day education system that is inclusive and recognises the diversity of Irish society was shared by the Government. We were told that elements of the Government were supportive, but when it comes to legislating, these elements have been found wanting.
I will quote what various people are saying about the issue, starting with the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who said last year:
Pluralism is something we should welcome...
A clear plurality will make it easier for teachers to find an environment in which they can be true to their convictions. [The same, of course, applies to students in schools.] It requires a new and mature culture of dialogue about values, including religious values, and a culture which respects religious values.
Earlier this year the archbishop said:
Faith can and does play a role in the future of Irish education and not just in a marginal way ... We need to reassure them that faith cannot be imposed and one should not attempt to impose it. But when faith gives one an added dimension, one which enriches what is purely technical, that contribution should be welcomed by all.
Indeed the common desire towards a vision of a pluralist Ireland which both those who hold a secular viewpoint of life and those whose lives are faith inspired will only be achieved through a process of mature dialogue, respectful discussion of differences and a sharing of common concerns.
I absolutely support this. That approach to diversity and mutual respect is not possible under the current primary and secondary school system, which is shameful.
Just last month the archbishop said:
We need a society where people who believe, people who are searching, people who doubt and people who reject religious values can live in a new mature relationship of dialogue and seeking. Enlightened secular society does not need to fear dialogue with men and women who believe or vice-versa.
Therefore, while Irish society and the Catholic Church are moving on and have a much more enlightened view of denominational education and while many in this House are demanding urgent reform, unfortunately, the Government is stuck back a few decades ago and not prepared to commit to introducing the reforms that are so badly needed.
Other eminent bodies should be quoted in this debate. Last year the European Court of Human Rights heard a case involving a different form of discrimination but its findings are still relevant to this point. Last year in referring to the Louise O'Keeffe case it found that the State was responsible, even though it had outsourced its obligation to non-State entities. The State cannot absolve itself from the responsibility to protect the rights of all parents and children in the education system and delegate it to private patron bodies. It is responsible and has a positive obligation under the European convention to protect the rights of all parents and their children in the education system. Patently, it is not doing this.
The European Court of Human Rights also found that this model of primary education appeared to be unique in Europe and that it was not possible to stand over such an arm's length approach to such a responsibility. The State, in outsourcing its responsibility to provide schools and for their governance and in paying for that system of education, has a clear responsibility to uphold children's rights within it.
Another eminent source, the Constitutional Review Group, some time ago, made the following comments:
Article 44.2.4° may be thought to represent something of an exception to the general rule contained in Article 44.2.3° that the State shall not endow any religion. Accordingly, if a school under the control of a religious denomination accepts State funding, it must be prepared to accept that this aid is not given unconditionally.
It went on to say:
If Article 44.2.4° did not provide these safeguards, the State might well be in breach of its international obligations, inasmuch as it might mean that a significant number of children of minority religions (or those with no religion) might be coerced by force of circumstances to attend a school which did not cater for their particular religious views or their conscientious objections. If this were to occur, it would also mean that the State would be in breach of its obligations under Article 42.3.1°
Those comments and findings were arrived at by the Constitutional Review Group in 1995. It is just extraordinary; and here we are so many years later and still the system has not been reformed.
I made the point earlier that it is my strong view that the Equal Status Act is in breach of the constitutional provisions in respect of religion and education. We know that in Article 42.3.1° of the Constitution, in respect of education, the following provision is made: "The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State." It goes on to say: "The State shall provide for free primary education and shall endeavour to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative, and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities or institutions with due regard, however, for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation." That is not happening. While the school provides for primary education it does not currently respect the ethos or religious beliefs of parents because parents are forced into a situation whereby if they want to get their children into a State-funded primary school in their locality, if the school is over-subscribed, they have no chance of getting in unless their child is baptised. Again, that is an entirely indefensible position and the Government looks as if it is going to continue to stand over that.
In relation to the matter of religion in the Constitution, Article 44.2.1° provides: "Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen." That is not happening at the moment. Article 44.2.3° states: “The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.” It is quite clear that the State is discriminating against children who are not baptised in so far as they cannot access a school within a reasonable distance of their home.
Article 44.4.4° provides that: “Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.” It is all very well that there is constitutional provision ensuring that children attending a school do not have to attend religious instruction, but that provision assumes that such children can get into the school in the first place when the reality for too many children is that they cannot. The implication of the constitutional provision to which I have referred is that children would have access to and get into a school of a different belief system to their own, and in those circumstances they would not have to attend faith instruction. There are umpteen sources, including the Constitution, which make it clear that it is not acceptable constitutionally and it is not acceptable under international law to discriminate against children, to say to four year olds and five year olds that because their parents did not baptise them that they cannot get access to a State-funded local primary school. There are no circumstances at all in which that can be defended or justified.
There has been ample opportunity for the Government to reform the law in this regard. The provision of education and providing for pluralist options for all children throughout the country is another matter entirely. We will talk some other day about the lack of recognition and lack of provision for non-faith schools or multidenominational schools, but on this net point about the clear situation that prevails at the moment, whereby four year olds and five year olds are being discriminated against solely on the grounds that they are not baptised, cannot be defended on any grounds. It is the height of hypocrisy that we say to parents as a State that one’s children will not get access to a State school in the locality unless one’s child is baptised. It just makes a mockery of the State and the supposed independence of the State. It also makes a mockery of religion. The fact is very much recognised by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who knows that the current situation is intolerable and it is not in the interests of anybody, whatever their ethos, religious belief or non-religious belief to allow that to continue.
The Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has had opportunities to deal with the issue. It is not as if he does not know it is a pressing issue. It is something that comes up on a regular basis. Recently, a petition of 20,000 names was presented to the Government, whereby people were demanding their right as citizens and taxpayers in this country to have access for their children to their local State schools.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has talked about the need to do something in this area. She has promised an education admissions Bill sometime shortly but it is very difficult to see such a Bill being prepared and passed this side of a general election. Even if it was, quite extraordinarily, the Minister has stated that while she is going to deal with a number of aspects of school admissions and intake policies that need reform, she is not going to deal with the most glaring example of discrimination, namely, the religious ground. It is just beyond belief that a Minister would recognise there is a serious issue of discrimination that needs to be tackled, she has promised to introduce a Bill that deals with the very issue of admission to schools, yet she says she will not address this most pressing issue.
I do not know what her thinking is on that.
I will conclude. It is quite extraordinary that the Minister would do that. She said the next Government will do this. That is passing the buck on a grand scale. It is also saying to parents who find themselves in that situation that it is too bad, it is their hard luck and they will have to wait until some future Government might have the courage to address this area of discrimination.
I put it to the Minister of State present that by agreeing to amendment No. 1 he can address this issue very simply and in a very straightforward way and deal with that net point purely on the grounds that it is unacceptable that schools should be allowed to discriminate against four and five year olds on the grounds of religion specifically. The Minister of State knows that is not on, that it is not acceptable and that it is wrong. I call on him and his Government colleagues to do the right thing.
Deputies Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy have similar related amendments. I call Deputy Coppinger followed by Deputy Paul Murphy. Also, Deputies Eric Byrne, Jonathan O'Brien, Catherine Murphy, Richard Boyd Barrett, Joan Collins and Clare Daly have indicated they wish to contribute.
I propose amendment No. 8 on behalf of the Anti-Austerity Alliance. It calls for the deletion of subsection (3)(c) which allows discrimination in admissions policy in schools on the grounds of religion. There is obviously a massive interest among Deputies in this topic and it is unfortunate that this debate will be guillotined at 9 p.m. We will not even get past dealing with one amendment, which is unfortunate for the parents who are in the Gallery. I will be as brief as I can.
It is way past time for this legislative measure to be removed and this debate presents the perfect opportunity for the Minister of State to insert this proposal into the list of equality provisions he is making. This measure is discriminatory. It is socially extremely divisive in communities. It is also quite incredible that State-run, taxpayer-funded schools are allowed give preferential treatment to one religion. Teachers are paid by the State, the school buildings, repairs and all the school expenses are paid for in whole or in part by the taxpayer but yet boards of management or patrons are allowed draft admissions policies based on inequality.
The idea that in 2015 a school can discriminate against admitting a child on the basis of their religion is racism. There is no other word it. If that was the case pertaining in any other country, that is what we would call it. It is a form of apartheid in effect. There are two cases involving people who are in the Gallery. One of them has spoken a good deal on this topic. To give the case study of those involved, the father is a Hindu, living in the Dublin area and his daughter has to travel 6 km to school. Other children in their estate attend local schools. His daughter does not understand why she cannot attend the local school with her neighbours and friends. She is in junior infants and they had to apply to seven schools. They were told at one point by the archbishop's office that there was a simple way out; to tell a Hindu that he should get his daughter baptised is quite incredible.
Another woman who lives in Dublin has applied to nine schools for her son to start primary school this year. Eight have turned him down on the grounds of religion. The son is not in school now, he has had to stay back an extra year, all because they could not get a school to take him.
The Minister of State is the Minister responsible for equality and he has a chance to do something about this. I believe he made a statement yesterday that if he gets re-elected he will do something about this in the next Government. Is he for real? He is actually going to ask people to vote for what is rank hypocrisy. He can do something about this tonight. These children could attend school for the new school year in September rather than having potentially to wait many more years while this discrimination continues.
In the Dublin West constituency that I was elected to represent one in four people is born outside of Ireland. It can be taken therefore that we have a multi-religious, multi-ethnic population. We had the perfect storm a few years ago when there was a huge shortage of school places due to the of massive development that took place during the so-called Celtic tiger years but no schools were provided to cater for the increase in the population. We had massive public meetings to which TDs trotted along and they told the assembled throng that they backed the school in using the Catholics first baptismal cert policy. They actually said that and some of those are Ministers in the current Government.
Other schools in Dublin West have introduced a quota system. They will take in 30% non-Catholics as a recognition that they should do something to help solve the problem but that is simply not good enough. That is also discrimination. Even though the taxpayer is funding schools, they remain single religion schools in terms of 70% of the students admitted. In Dublin West and in many other areas parents have to drive significant distances and they pass each other on the roads, with some driving from Clonsilla to Castleknock and some driving from Castleknock to Clonsilla, adding to the traffic, all because they cannot get their children admitted to their local school. I am in the same situation. I have to drive my daughter to school. I would like her to go to the local school but it is a Catholic school so therefore she cannot attend.
It is inexcusable of the Minister of State if he does not accept this amendment. When I went outside the gates of these Houses two weeks ago to talk to parents who were raising the issue of the deletion of section 7(3)(c), I saw a rake of Labour Party members there as well, some of whom were prominent equality Senators. Tonight the Minister of State has a chance not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk and accept this amendment.
He brought in an admissions policy in April and the Minister for Education and Skills told us it was unconstitutional. I do not have great faith in the Constitution of Ireland. It was drafted years ago, it is not representative and it treats women as second class citizens, but I have looked at it. It contains many provisions that state that this State is not to guarantee or endow any one religion, but what is this only endowing religion? Other provisions were cited in the lengthy contribution Deputy Shortall made. It is not in the Constitution to allow such discrimination. The Minister of State has a great opportunity to remove this measure tonight.
It is regrettable that we will not have time to deal with this legislation. If we change this legislation and non-Catholics, people of diverse religions and of no religions can get into the schools that we all pay for, we will have to change the climate in schools. There is no point in letting people into schools an then subjecting them to indoctrination effectively for the whole day. We will have to change many provisions and we not will not reach the later amendments we tabled. We have tabled three major amendments to the Education Act. If the Minister does not accept this proposal, we will put forward a Bill, which will go to the Bills Office tomorrow morning, containing these proposed amendments and a proposal to delete of section 7(3)(c). The changes that would be needed relate to the school curriculum being invested with religion, boards of management having to adhere to what the patron of the school says, which is usually the local Catholic church, the timetable having to include religion, the fact that it is made extremely difficult for people not to have their children in Catholic schools or in a religious school, having to take instruction on subjects and not being allowed not to participate. We have had many cases of that. These are all issues that must be dealt with but, for tonight, will the Minister of State please start with the simple measure of not excluding children on the basis of religion?
I would like to speak in support of the Anti-Austerity Alliance amendment and a similar amendment tabled by Deputy Shortall proposing the deletion of section 7(3)(c). We had a tremendous movement from below for equality which was reflected in the massive "Yes" vote in May of this year, which ended discrimination against LGBTQ people in regard to marriage. That was welcomed by the Government, the Labour Party and Fine Gael, as a big step forward in terms of equality, and I agree. We will go further again tonight in terms of going a significant step along the way of ending discriminating in particular against gay and bisexual teachers in schools.
The Government's amendments do not go the full way in that direction but they go an important part of the way.
Almost everybody in the State recognises this as State sanctioned and State funded discrimination. It is provided for in our laws that schools can discriminate on the basis of people's religion or lack thereof. An opinion poll conducted by Ipsos MRBI found that 94% of people were opposed to a religion requirement in the context of accessing education. Respondents overwhelmingly did not think that they were being asked a question about laws that exist right now. Many people who may happen to be Catholic, whether they are practising or not, have not noticed there is an incredible provision in our laws whereby children and their parents are discriminated on the basis of their religion or lack thereof. It is repugnant to any notion of equality that we allow this discrimination to happen from the age of four or five and we fund it with taxpayer's money.
The reality in this State, given the historic domination of the Catholic Church and its role in our education system, which needs to be ended, is that a religion first policy, which is explicitly permitted by this section, results in most cases in a Catholic first policy. There needs to be a separation of church and State entirely, including in the education system. It means there is discrimination against Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, atheists or anybody who does not fit in with the religious ethos of the significant majority of our schools. That is not simply an abstract matter of equality or inequality and the mindset that takes the view while it is a shame that this is in place there is no harm being done. The reality, as Deputy Coppinger outlined, is that real harm is being done to significant numbers of people in this city and across the country in terms of children not understanding why they are unable to access the local school that their friends on their estate or road attend and why they have to travel a long distance to school. It also means some children have to spend an extra year in preschool because they are unable, having applied to numerous schools, to access any primary school. They need to return to preschool and apply again to gain access.
That has implications for many people as they are forced to have their children baptised, whether they choose to or not. It is like the advice given by the archbishop's office to Rupesh in Rathfarnham which said that one easy way around this was to baptise his daughter. It is incredible advice but the reality is it is followed somewhat unwillingly by many people who just want to avoid hassle by having their child baptised. It is incredible that there is pressure in this State, which is supposed to champion equality, on parents to baptise their children.
Another impact of this discrimination can be, although not in all circumstances, a segregation of children in different schools whereby those predominantly from immigrant communities, who are significantly less likely to be Catholic, are less likely to gain access to many national schools and have to attend Educate Together schools. This has created a system of apartheid within our education system, which is contrary to any notion of equality.
I am interested to hear the Minister of State's response. I do not see how a Minister with responsibility for equality or how the Labour Party can stand over this. If we get the answer we all expect that the Government agrees with us in principle but there is an excuse and it will get back to us, which will not happen before the next election, it will not be acceptable. An opportunity exists to send a message to make a significant change on behalf of children and parents across the State to reflect the reality of our society and that change needs to be accepted by the Government.
I welcome the legislation. Years ago some Members made the mistake of empowering the Roman Catholic Church to discriminate against LGBT teachers. Mervyn Taylor was the Minister for Equality and Law Reform at the time in the rainbow coalition Government. I am delighted years later to vote with the Minister of State to repeal that clearly discriminatory provision against LGBT teachers.
Ireland is at the crossroads. Our economy is booming, we are in a European Union, we embrace the free flow of labour throughout the Union and we have an obligation to, and a policy of, attracting international workers to take up employment and, hopefully, rear their families here. We have also prided ourselves over the past four of five years in holding large citizenship ceremonies. Anybody who has taken the time to attend such a ceremony will have noticed the pleasure and joy of those who have become citizens, having come here from as many as 120 different countries, and the cultural and racial composition of those who happily become Irish. They are Chinese, Mongolians and north, south and central African. They are Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, atheists while many in the African community are of an evangelical Protestant tradition. We are part of Europe attracting international workers who want to build their family lives in Ireland. Approximately 50,000 of them have become citizens and they are of such diversity that it is difficult to even comprehend in such a short time.
The question we must ask ourselves is how do we as a State, which is proud of its citizenship ceremonies, handle the educational needs of their children? That issue will not be resolved tonight. I take a slightly different position from most of the previous speakers, which is not anti-Catholic. I am a secularist and I believe in the notion of a secular state and the state being secular by acting like a grandfather or a loving father and mother to every child born in it, no matter what cultural or religious background they come from. There is an obligation on the State to applaud and to encourage these children to grow in our multicultural society. I have pointed out previously that we are a small island. There are cultural divisions in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants - those with loyalty to England and those with loyalty to the Republic. As a result, 3,000 died partly through conflict.
Those of us who engaged in mixed marriages in this country had a particular difficulty in deciding where our children would go to school and where they would be accepted. I was very lucky that the Protestant population going to Kildare Place National School in Rathmines was diminishing in numbers with the result that there were openings for non-Protestant children. I was very lucky in that period that my children could attend a Protestant school which was the faith of neither my wife nor I. I am very conscious that when that school became very popular, people actually decided they were Protestant even though they were not practising Protestants. Many of them attempted to produce proof that they were Protestant even though they were not in order to get their children into that school. That is comparable to those people forced against their wishes to baptise children when they are agnostic, atheist or have other reasons not to baptise the child. Imagine how the Muslim community must feel if they are told or suspect that they should have their children baptised in order to access a school in their locality. I praise the Roman Catholic Church, which operates the schools in my constituency, particularly Warrenmount school in the inner city. It has more children from diverse communities than one could imagine, many of whom are Muslim. The imam of the Blackpitts mosque sends his children to that school. I congratulate Synge Street school, which accepts many children from diverse communities and has not asked for baptismal certificates to be produced. These schools are low demand schools within the Catholic community and, therefore, it is only by the grace of God there are facilities there for the adjoining community, just as I was able to benefit from the diminishing number of Protestants in the Kildare Place school.
As a secularist, I want to see every child going to State-run schools. Religious beliefs can be more than adequately catered for outside school surroundings. When it comes to education, the United States has a very positive policy. Why segregate children in a multicultural society at a tender age when they should naturally be making friends from across the cultural divide, whether Indian, Muslim or Hindu? Is that not the beauty of multiculturalism?
The Minister of State will not change the law here tonight. I want to put down a marker that the State is at a crossroads. There are tell-tale signs. The Archbishop of Dublin has made progressive comments. He seems to be implying that there are forces at play within the Roman Catholic Church that will not concede the surplus schools they have. However, that is a problem for them and I will not enter into that debate. In those schools that have accepted children of other faiths, the Roman Catholic Church is not suffering from the effects of this diversity, for example in Drimnagh Castle school, where the diversity is spectacular. I ask the Government to implore the Roman Catholic Church to recognise how offensive it is to ask people to produce baptismal certificates in order to gain access to schools.
There are lessons to be learned from Paris, Crossmaglen and other vicious societies and events such as those in Kano province in northern Nigeria, Somalia and Kenya, and from how terrorism is dividing Catholic from Protestant and the Christian south from the Muslim north. There is every reason to believe that if this society is to be a shining light and sustain itself as a multicultural society, we must insist on children in the State sharing the same classroom. That means it is not just a Roman Catholic issue. Why should Protestant children go to Protestant schools? Why should Jewish children go to Jewish schools? Why should Muslim children be isolated in their schools? If we are a multicultural society, we must compel the State to allow children, during the most formative years of their lives, to mix, understand cultural diversity and grow up in a society that welcomes and embraces all children.
The argument has already been made by previous speakers. We are under time constraint and there is a guillotine at 9 p.m. We should at least have the opportunity to vote on the amendments. Therefore, I will not speak further and I ask everyone else who is due to speak to limit it so we can at least have the opportunity to vote on the amendment.
This Bill is about equality. If we cannot remedy something as blatant as the inequality of discriminating against four and five year olds, I do not know what we are doing here, to be perfectly honest. I will take the same line as Deputy O'Brien and will not go into detail. A lot has been said already. This Government came in with a great promise. It could have done anything because of the huge majority it had. The Labour Party is not a minor part of this Government - it has 36 or 37 seats, if I remember correctly. One would have expected a significant amount of progress to have been made on something like this. It makes people dishonest when we need honesty in our society as a value in its own right. People are going off and having their children baptised when it is not their choice. There is pretence in order to get their child into school. I am not anti-Catholic and I am not religious. There is something very offensive about a four year old being refused on the basis that they are not baptised when the school is a publicly funded building and its teachers are paid by the State. In this day and age, that is not acceptable. This is an opportunity to do something about it.
I appeal to any Government Deputies who want to speak on this to respect the fact that an amendment has been tabled and we want to vote on it, namely on the specific proposal to remove this obnoxious discrimination against children in our schools. Please do not talk down the clock so we are forced to vote on the Bill as a whole because we support it, but we want the elimination of an absolutely obnoxious and unacceptable discrimination against children included in it. The essence of discrimination is that one group gets precedence over others and that is happening in our schools. Young children are being discriminated against based on their religious belief or lack of religious belief or because of the family's religion or religious belief, which overlaps heavily with their ethnic background because of the new communities coming to Ireland. It is absolutely unacceptable.
The Government has no excuse but to remove that discrimination if it means what it says when it claims it is in favour of equality. Will the Minister of State and the Government side please allow the vote to happen and not talk down the clock?
It is quite ironic we have gone through the marriage equality referendum with all the structures put in place for it. I heard Deputy Eric Byrne say the LGBT community should not be discriminated against. They should not. However, a LGBT who is a Catholic in a Catholic school will be discriminated against. That is the problem and why it is important we vote on these particular amendments.
This is not against Catholic schools. Up to 96% of primary schools are under patronage, 90% of which are Catholic schools. This is a general point about school patronage and how children can be discriminated against, no matter what situation they are in. We should vote on this amendment. Rule 68 has to be removed. This rule, introduced in 1965, states that religious instruction is the most important part of the curriculum. Apart from that, a child will still face all the religious emblems and other issues in school. We should encourage secular schools as the taxpayer is paying for the system. The national school system was set up in 1831. The former Minister for Education, Niamh Breathnach, changed that when she brought in the choice system for schools.
We live in a very different Ireland to the one which abdicated its responsibility in the early years of the State for the provision of essential public services and left them in the hands of the Catholic Church. Over the past year, and particularly over the past several months, we have seen a groundswell of parents and teachers who are not willing and not prepared to put up with this issue any longer. This is a significantly positive development. It is in part a reflection of the fact that we have become a much more multicultural society. However, it is not solely that. There are many Irish born people who do not have any religion. I am one of them. I am an atheist and I have many friends who are atheists as well. Even for the many people who practice religion nominally, but only because it is so associated with so many aspects of our lives, we all believe this has to change. It is not part of what we are now in 2015.
Thinking back to Second Stage, the Minister of State stood here with a little fanfare of Labour Party Deputies behind him and told us this was the best legislation ever. This was to be even bigger than the marriage equality referendum in what it was going to do for Ireland. It was frankly embarrassing. This is a limited Bill and is absolutely pathetic.
The fact that we have not been given time to discuss the multiple aspects of discrimination included in it is reprehensible. We are not even going to touch these. Deputy Eric Byrne asked why are children being segregated and why can all children, no matter what religion, not go to the same school. It is because of the patronage policies which this Government introduced. This provision is a small part in that. If the Labour Party is a fraction of what it claims it is on the tin in terms of equality, it will support this amendment.
I am happy to support any Bill which outlaws inequality in society, whether it relates to class, colour or creed. While I am happy to welcome this Bill, I am equally happy to support this amendment. If we talk about equality in its full form, we cannot dilute it. One cannot say one agrees with the part of the Bill which outlaws discrimination against adults in their employment places, but then change gear and say there is no discrimination against children born into families with different religious backgrounds or into families with no faith. Whether people have a religion or not, it is none of my business. Dare I say it is none of the business of any other Oireachtas Member. It is a private matter.
It really is not possible to have it both ways. If we are going to deal with the protection of people in the sense they are not discriminated against in the workplace, one cannot put off the question as to how admissions policies in schools discriminate against children. All my adult life, I have held the view that children should be educated together. Religion should have no part in it. I accept for historical reasons matters have moved slowly. A start has to be made on this, however. If one subscribes to the view that children should be educated together, then one has to support this amendment.
I identify two particular issues. First, in areas where schools are currently not oversubscribed, there is the issue of availability of schools, either non-denominational or multidenominational. What we need in those cases is the investment in more choice so that parents have the option of the choice they wish. In many cases, it is not to go to a school which has a particular religion or ethos.
There is also the particular issue in 20% of cases where schools are oversubscribed. In many of these situations, we see children being able to travel from outside of the school's catchment area and gain access to that school based on their ethos. In doing that, we see many children within the school's catchment area, who do not share the denomination or ethos of the school, not being able to gain access to a local school as a result. What we need to see is a rebalancing of the current situation, so the option for a school to be able to give admission preference to a child who shares the ethos of the school is restricted only to children for whom that school is the closest of their shared ethos.
This would mean we would not see situations where people travel significant distances, bypassing other schools which share their ethos, to gain entry to a particular school based on their religion and, in that, depriving other children from the locality of school places. That rebalancing needs take place. It would be an appropriate way to deal with this. It might not satisfy everyone but I believe it is about balancing the different and various rights but also the different desires of people as to how their children will be educated. For that reason, that is the pathway we would be seeking to go down, rather than the total removal of the section.
I thank Deputies for their contributions, many of which I have much support for and some of which were a little bit off tone. Several years ago, Deputies Ciara Conway, Dominic Hannigan and John Lyons, Senator Ivana Bacik and I came together to draft legislation to amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998.
Over several years, painstakingly, through the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Office of the Attorney General, with amendments and counter-amendments and discussion from all sides of the Houses, we have come to the position today where we can amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 to remove the chilling effect for people who work in religious-run State institutions which are-----
Acting Chairman, we are allowed a point of order. We are debating amendment No. 1. Will the Minister of State not be disingenuous and respect the democratic procedures in the House? Will the Minister of State not talk down the clock to avoid a vote being taken on amendment No. 1?
On the amendment itself, the point is that this is the vehicle which we are trying to achieve tonight. What has been brought into this vehicle of amending legislation is an issue concerning the Equality Act. I have a huge amount of sympathy with the points made and what campaigners such as Paddy Monahan, John Suttle and others, who I have been dealing with and speaking to over a number of years, are doing, but there are technical reasons this amendment cannot be accepted.
It is not my intention in any way to talk down any clock. I am trying to give the House the time and the decency of the explanation that has been prepared to have a decent and proper understanding of what we are trying to achieve.
As an aside, as someone who has been the focal point of heavy criticism in Catholic, right-wing and conservative newspapers and who has been shouted about and criticised from pulpits in churches across the land, I find it remarkable that somehow my or my Department's analysis of this legislation is considered to be coming from a conservative viewpoint. I ask the Deputies to allow me the time to give a constitutional angle and the technical reasons for our arguments.
The objective of the amendment is to provide for the repeal of the current section 7(3)(c) in its entirety. Section 7 generally prohibits discrimination in respect of the admission policy operated by an educational establishment except where it is a primary or post-primary school operating in an environment which promotes certain religious values. In such circumstances, under subsection 7(3)(c) the school may favour the enrolment of students from a particular religious denomination in preference to others or refuse to admit a student who is not of that denomination. However, any preferential admission policy in this regard is only permitted to the extent it is essential to maintaining the religious ethos of the particular school.
The provision reflects the freedom of religion guaranteed in Article 44 of the Constitution as interpreted by the superior courts and, in particular, the right of every religious denomination to manage its own affairs and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes. I am advised that deleting this provision would infringe that freedom of religion for religiously run institutions.
The broader issue of school admission policies and the creation of greater choice for parents who do not want a religious education for their children is a matter for the Department of Education and Skills. As Deputies will be aware, my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, is addressing these issues in the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill-----
-----and that is where the issues surrounding school admission policies will be addressed as well as by creating real choice for parents through putting a wider variety of schools in place. For that reason, I am not in a position to accept the amendment.
It was argued in the Article 26 referral hearing of the Employment Equality Bill 1996 that what became section 31 contravened the guarantees of freedom of conscience and free profession and practice of religion contained in Article 44.2.1°-----
-----and that it contravened the ban on imposing any disabilities or making any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status. Effectively, not to delay the issue further, the point is that a constitutional issue is at play here. It is not in any way our intention to have a situation persist where children are precluded from attending their local school. It is my firm belief and personal view that the issue at the heart of the education system is that it is one which is dominated by patronage and not child-centred.
-----and other sections to ensure that the chilling effect on members of the LGBT community, divorcees and single parents who work in our schools and hospitals under religious patronage can be eliminated. I am proud of this Bill-----
- Richard Boyd Barrett
- Tommy Broughan
- Joan Collins
- Michael Colreavy
- Ruth Coppinger
- Seán Crowe
- Clare Daly
- Dessie Ellis
- Martin Ferris
- Michael Fitzmaurice
- Tom Fleming
- John Halligan
- Séamus Healy
- Pádraig MacLochlainn
- Eamonn Maloney
- Finian McGrath
- Sandra McLellan
- Catherine Murphy
- Paul Murphy
- Aengus Ó Snodaigh
- Jonathan O'Brien
- Maureen O'Sullivan
- Thomas Pringle
- Róisín Shortall
- Brian Stanley
- Peadar Tóibín
- Bobby Aylward
- James Bannon
- Tom Barry
- Pat Breen
- Richard Bruton
- Joan Burton
- Ray Butler
- Jerry Buttimer
- Catherine Byrne
- Eric Byrne
- Dara Calleary
- Joe Carey
- Paudie Coffey
- Niall Collins
- Michael Conaghan
- Paul Connaughton
- Ciara Conway
- Marcella Corcoran Kennedy
- Michael Creed
- Jimmy Deenihan
- Pat Deering
- Paschal Donohoe
- Robert Dowds
- Bernard Durkan
- Damien English
- Alan Farrell
- Frank Feighan
- Peter Fitzpatrick
- Charles Flanagan
- Noel Grealish
- Brendan Griffin
- Dominic Hannigan
- Noel Harrington
- Simon Harris
- Michael Healy-Rae
- Martin Heydon
- Brendan Howlin
- Kevin Humphreys
- Derek Keating
- Colm Keaveney
- Paul Kehoe
- Seán Kenny
- Seán Kyne
- Kathleen Lynch
- Michael McCarthy
- Charlie McConalogue
- Helen McEntee
- Gabrielle McFadden
- Dinny McGinley
- Mattie McGrath
- Tony McLoughlin
- Michael McNamara
- Olivia Mitchell
- Mary Mitchell O'Connor
- Michelle Mulherin
- Dara Murphy
- Dan Neville
- Derek Nolan
- Aodhán Ó Ríordáin
- Fergus O'Dowd
- John O'Mahony
- Joe O'Reilly
- Jan O'Sullivan
- John Perry
- Ann Phelan
- Ruairi Quinn
- Pat Rabbitte
- James Reilly
- Michael Ring
- Brendan Ryan
- Alan Shatter
- Brendan Smith
- Arthur Spring
- Emmet Stagg
- David Stanton
- Leo Varadkar
- Jack Wall
I am now required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: "That each of the sections undisposed of is hereby agreed to and the Title is hereby agreed to, that Report Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed."