Equality law will change to protect gay teachers, says Ó Ríordáin

Schools and hospitals will not be able to discriminate over sexuality, Minister says

Luke Field from Cork and Minister of State for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin at the count centre in Dublin for the same-sex marriage referendum. Photograph: Cyril Byrne.

Luke Field from Cork and Minister of State for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin at the count centre in Dublin for the same-sex marriage referendum. Photograph: Cyril Byrne.

 

A planned change to equality law will “raise the bar” so high that schools and hospitals will not be allowed to discriminate against staff or job applicants because they are gay, Minister of State for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has said.

The Government is working on an amendment to the Employment Equality Act, which allows religious-run schools and hospitals to discriminate in order to maintain their ethos. Advocacy groups and unions say the law has a chilling effect on gay and lesbian teachers, who feel their sexuality could hinder employment or promotion prospects.

Mr Ó Ríordáin said he believed an attempt to repeal section 37.1 of the Act, which gives religious-run workplaces an exemption to discrimination law if an individual undermines their ethos, could be unconstitutional.

Instead, the Government would amend the law so as to “raise the bar of the ‘undermining’ to be so high as to be irrelevant what somebody’s personal life would be”.

Promotion prospects

“Effectively you have a situation where an awful lot of teachers in primary and secondary schools would have voted Yes [in the marriage referendum] on Friday, would have gone out and celebrated over the weekend, possibly went back into their staff rooms on Monday morning and didn’t tell anybody what they were up to because they felt it would impact on their promotion prospects in the school,” Mr Ó Ríordáin said.

He believed this was a workers’ rights issue that affected not only the LGBT community but people who were remarried or cohabiting with their partners.

Mr Ó Ríordáin was speaking on The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast, where he clashed with the chair of the Iona Institute’s board of directors, John Murray.

Commitment

Mr Murray said section 37 should not be changed, but if it was, new text should include a commitment to denominational education. He said schools had a “live and let live” attitude to diversity and respect for people’s private lives.

“There are hundreds of teachers around Ireland who are divorced or remarried. There are many teachers who are living together with somebody, who aren’t married at all. That happens in loads and loads of cases,” he said.

“I’m involved in education for the last 30 years and I’m not aware that there’s a major problem about this, in terms of people being sacked or people losing their jobs or people not being able to do their jobs. It simply isn’t true.”

Under current law, educational or medical institutions controlled by religious orders which promote religious values are not considered to be discriminating if they favour an employee or prospective employee “in order to maintain the religious ethos”.

Repeal or amendment of section 37.1 has been discussed since the early 2000s, when the Equality Authority said it should be reviewed. Any amendment must strike a balance between the right to equality and the right to earn a livelihood, on one hand, and the right to the profession and practice of religion.

Mr Ó Ríordáin hopes the law will be amended by the new school year in September.