Most primary schools will not be able to give priority access to children on the basis of their religion from September next year, following the passage of “Baptism barrier” legislation in the Dáil on Tuesday night.
The vast majority of primary schools in the State - just over 90 per cent - are of a Catholic ethos.
The School Admissions Bill prohibit these schools from giving enrolment priority to baptised children in cases where they are over-subscribed.
However, minority faiths will still be allowed to prioritise members of their religion in order to protect their ethos in cases where they are over-subscribed.
This exclusion, according to the Minister for Education Richard Bruton, has been introduced to help ensure children of minority faiths can still access a school of their own religion, but this provision will be reviewed after three years.
The new rules will apply to over-subscribed schools (about 20 per cent). Schools not oversubscribed will continue to be obliged to accept all applicants, regardless of religion.
Mr Bruton said the removal of the “Baptism barrier” was a historic move which sought to balance the rights of all families.
“Parents should not feel pressured to baptise their child to get access to their local school,” he said.
A 25 per cent limit has been set on the number of school places that can be set aside for children of past pupils. At present there is no such restriction.
There is also a provision to allow all-Irish primary and secondary schools to give enrolment priority to Irish-speaking children.
Mr Bruton said this would set a “high bar” for children who use Irish in their daily lives and not just at school. Parents would have to provide evidence of this.
He told the Dáil that additional regulations will be set out for cases of appeal.
There are new powers for the Minister to require schools to open classes for children with special needs where necessary.
Waiting lists will be banned to ensure children who move to a new area or who rent are not disadvantaged.
In the Dáil, which dealt with amendments from the Seanad, the Minister welcomed passage of the Bill and said it represented “the modernisation of the way we run our schools. Ireland is changing rapidly and we have to respond to that change.”
Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne said the Bill had been a "genuinely collaborative effort because the best possible Bill has been passed". It was a "signal change" and there should be a focus on resources for schools.
Welcoming the Bill's passage, founder of equality group Equate Michael Barron said "we need to get to a position where no child is ever asked their religion when accessing State-funded education".
However, many Catholic groups have expressed opposition to the changes which they say are part of a broader attempt to secularise the education sector.