Church won’t have to kick out the awkward teachers because it won’t let them in
Opinion: As a quid pro quo for not being allowed to fire teachers on religious grounds, the church is being given reinforced control over who is employed
‘The church in Belize cited the Flynn case as sanction for the firing of Ms Roches. The chief justice of Belize, however, was sceptical to the point of open contempt for Ireland’s standing in these matters.’ Above, Eileen Flynn, who was dismissed from her job at the Holy Faith school in New Ross in 1982. Photograph: Peter Thursfield / THE IRISH TIMES
Most people, religious or non-religious, would now accept that the toxic intertwining of church and State deformed both. But it is not just an aspect of the dark past. In the education system, it is being copperfastened right now.
The small central American country Belize has some things in common with Ireland: it is largely Catholic, its legal system is partly inherited from English common law and its education system is church-dominated. In 2003, the Catholic diocese of Toledo fired a primary school teacher called Maria Roches because she was pregnant, not married, and therefore in breach of an obligation to live by “Jesus’s teaching on marriage and sex”. Ms Roches sued the diocese and the case went to the supreme court. The church cited, in support of its right to fire Roches, the 1985 Irish High Court case of Eileen Flynn. Ms Flynn was fired from her job at the Holy Faith school in New Ross for living with a man to whom she was not married. Judge Declan Costello sided with the nuns. He found, among other things, that they were “entitled to take into account that the appellant’s association [with the man] was carried on openly and publicly in a country town of quite a small population”; that Flynn’s conduct “would have been common knowledge in the town” and that pupils in the school “would regard her conduct as a rejection of the norms of behaviour and the ideals which the school was endeavouring to instil in and set for them”.
Open contempt The church in Belize cited the Flynn case as sanction for the firing of Ms Roches. The chief justice of Belize, however, was sceptical to the point of open contempt for Ireland’s standing in these matters: “I must be cautious, this is a case from Ireland [and] we all know the position of Ireland on religious issues.” He was entirely unpersuaded by the argument that in schools supported by public funds, religious orthodoxy can take precedence over human rights and international law on non-discrimination. He found in favour of Ms Roches, not least on the grounds that Belize (like Ireland) is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and that it is patently discriminatory to fire women for getting pregnant while taking no action against men whose sexual conduct leaves less visible traces.
The Belize case is interesting because it gives us an outside perspective on an aspect of Irish law. It seemed pretty clear to the Belize chief justice that it is intolerable in a constitutional democracy to allow public employees, paid by the state, to be fired because their private lives do not conform to a particular church’s teaching. Yet in Ireland, the Eileen Flynn judgment is still the law of the land. It was written into legislation in section 37 of the Employment Equality Act of 1998, which says that any religious-run body (including most schools and many hospitals) can take any “action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution”. In practice, this includes living openly in any kind of sexual relationship (heterosexual or homosexual) that is not sanctioned by the church, or publicly advocating any policies (gay marriage, for example) that go against church teaching.
The good news is that, on the surface, the Government is moving to limit this open discrimination. An amendment to the Act, watering down the religious opt-out from equality legislation, is wending its way through the Seanad and Ministers have promised to get it passed. Yet the Government is also shoring up church control of employment in education. Discrimination isn’t just about what happens to teachers – it’s also about who gets to be a teacher in the first place. The programme for government recognises this: “People of non-faith or . . . LGBT people should not be deterred from training or taking up employment as teachers in the State.”
I’ve raised here recently the extraordinary situation in which State-funded teacher training colleges are telling their students that their degrees will be of limited use unless they also take a diploma in “faith formation” for Catholic or Protestant schools. In effect, public universities are colluding in a system of open discrimination in which atheist, Muslim, or Orthodox would-be teachers have to sign up to become missionaries for faiths to which they do not belong if they are to be eligible to work in the bulk of taxpayer-funded teaching jobs.
‘Religious education’ Astonishingly, last Friday,
Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn endorsed this message, telling The Irish Times that “Teachers seeking to maximise their job prospects would be advised to study religious education”.
What’s happening, then, is this: as a quid pro quo for not being allowed to fire teachers on religious grounds, the church is being given reinforced control over who gets employed in the first place. It won’t have to kick out the awkward ones because it won’t let them in.