Catholic groups have told the Government that plans to remove the “Baptism barrier” for entry to school will create major constitutional problems and open the State to a series of legal challenges from parents and religious bodies.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced plans last year which will prohibit Catholic Catholic primary schools from giving enrolment priority to baptised children in cases where they are over-subscribed.
However, minority faiths, such as the Church of Ireland, may continue to prioritise members of their religion in order to protect their ethos in cases where they are over-subscribed.
Submissions released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the depth of opposition from Catholic bishops, trustee bodies for thousands of Catholic schools, along with management bodies and missionary groups.
The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association says Mr Bruton's plan is part of a "secularisation agenda aimed mainly at the Catholic Church".
It states: “We note that such a process may also open the State to a multiplicity of civil suits by those parents who wish to retain a Catholic faith ethos of their children.”
It also warned that such steps would conflict with the constitutional protections for parents and religious schools.
“If the substance of the proposal is to effectively preclude parents in violation of their conscience from sending a child to a school of their choice, it would be very difficult to uphold the constitutionality of such a legislative choice,” it stated.
The Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools says the proposals will seriously undermine the role of Catholic schools and their ability to continue to promote a “living faith environment”.
“In short, the present proposal appears to be part of a process of encroachment on parental rights, property rights and the capacity of faith schools to provide a faith-based education for those who opt for same,” it states.
It cites a series of High Court and Supreme Court judgments where it is clear that "religious freedom and parental rights are paramount". This, it says, conflicts with the Government plans to prohibit Catholic schools from using religion as a criteria of entry.
It adds that the move to prohibit school entry on the grounds of religion is “particularly disturbing to Catholic trustees and patrons as it directly affects the capacity of faith schools to organise themselves and free association in a modern, democratic pluralist society”.
“From a legal perspective, the current proposal, to a greater or lesser extent, impacts on the right of the board of management in a faith school to manage that school and provide a faith-based education to those of the faith community it was designed to serve,” it states.
Mr Bruton’s plans to remove the “Baptism barrier” are due to be included in the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. This is set to be enacted later this year.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education said officials from the department have been engaging with the Office of the Attorney General in relation to a number of amendments proposed for the Bill’s report stages.
“The engagement on the proposals has been positive and the drafting of amendments is nearing conclusion. It is important that the amendments which the Minister introduces are constitutionally robust,” she said.
The spokeswoman said Mr Bruton was on record as stating that it was "unfair that preference is given by publicly-funded religious schools to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of children of a different religion or of no religion who live close to the school".
She added that the department was "building more schools and providing more additional school places than ever before", with a doubling in new school places being provided since 2010.
However, the Association of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland said Catholic parents and their children would end up being discriminated against under the proposals.
“One could envisage a possible situation arising where a Catholic parent could not get a place in a Catholic schools within reasonable proximity in which case, while not being obliged to attend a ’State’ school, might have great difficulty in exercising parental choice in accordance with their conscience and faith-based discernment,” it said.