Teacher Enoch Burke jailed over contempt of court order not to attend school

Teacher on paid administrative leave tells court he could not in conscience comply with order not to attend school

Teacher Enoch Burke has been jailed over contempt of court orders restraining him attending at the Co Westmeath secondary school where he is employed.

Mr Burke, who was put on paid administrative leave by Wilson’s Hospital School in late August pending a disciplinary process, told the court on Monday he could not “in conscience” obey the court order made last Tuesday.

School staff were directed by the principal last May “to call a boy a girl” but his conscience, Christian beliefs and the school’s own ethos prevented him doing so, he said. He wanted to be in his classroom but was in court “because I said I would not call a boy a girl”.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Michael Quinn said an August 30th interim order restrained Mr Burke until after September 7th or further order from attending school or teaching classes.


He said the background was Mr Burke had been informed by the family of a pupil that student wanted to transition and be addressed by a different name. On May 9th, the school principal sent a direction to staff asking them to use the pupil’s preferred name and the pronoun “they”.

Mr Burke had in communications said it was wrong to have this forced on teachers and pupils, and he would be taking this further.

The board of management (BOM) met to consider the position adopted by Mr Burke, commissioned a report and arranged a disciplinary meeting under stage 4 of its disciplinary procedures for September 14th.

Mr Burke was notified the report contained serious allegations and on August 22nd it was decided to place him on paid administrative leave pending the disciplinary meeting. Mr Burke was informed it was a temporary decision and not a disciplinary sanction of any kind.

His continued attendance at the school led to the interim order of August 30th restraining him from attending there. He continued to attend and said he intends to continue to do so. That led to the BOM seeking his attachment and committal for contempt of the order and him being brought by gardaí from the school to court on Monday to answer the contempt claim.

The judge noted Mr Burke had said the direction concerning the transitioning pupil was in conflict with his conscience, moral and religious beliefs and the school’s own ethos. The disciplinary meeting was the forum for Mr Burke to make his representations about the validity of the requests of the student’s family and school, he said.

The court in this application could only consider if there was a “wilful” breach of the August 30th order.

Mr Burke had conflated his response to this committal application with his views about complying with the request by the school concerning how to refer to the transitioning student, the judge said.

He was satisfied Mr Burke was guilty of contempt of the order and directed his committal to Mountjoy Prison until he purges his contempt.

Mr Burke responded he could not purge contempt of something he considered to be in breach of his Christian beliefs.

Earlier, Rosemary Mallon BL, instructed by Ian O’Herlihy of Mason Hayes and Curran solicitors, who is representing the board, said, in view of Mr Burke’s stance, her client was “with reluctance” and “regret” proceeding with the committal application. The aim was simply to have Mr Burke comply with the order, returnable to Wednesday. The disciplinary process had not been completed, she stressed.

Mr Burke said he could not obey the order made after he had been directed by the school “to call a boy a girl” which was “manifestly wrong” and against his conscience. Sticking by his view on male and female could not amount to a charge of gross misconduct which was the only thing that could form the basis of his suspension from the school, he said.

Under the disciplinary procedures, the board cannot suspend a teacher unless on foot of an allegation of gross misconduct, he said. Were he to obey the court order, he would have to accept that sticking in his belief in male and female “opens me to a charge of gross misconduct”.

“I cannot do that, transgenderism is contrary to my Christian belief,” he said. He respected the law and court system but could not obey the order because he could not be “a hypocrite”.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times