Catholic schools can still ask questions on religion despite new law

Section preventing schools asking questions will not come into effect for two years

One parent was asked questions about what religion the family was and asked for a baptism certificate if there was one. Photograph: Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty

Catholic primary schools are still requesting details of children’s baptism records despite new laws that prohibit the use of religion in their enrolment policies.

Legislation to deal with the “baptism barrier”, which came into effect in October last year, prohibits the use of religion to give priority access to children of a particular faith and affects enrolments from next month.

However, a section of the legislation preventing schools from asking the question on religion has not yet been commenced or implemented and will not come into effect for another two years.

The Department of Education is consulting schools on their enrolment and admissions policy, and the schools have until the 2021-2022 school year to publish their policies, at which point the remaining sections will be commenced, or enforced.


A spokesman for Minister for Education Joe McHugh said: “Since last October it has been made abundantly clear that primary schools cannot use religion as a criterion for admissions, except in specific circumstances when dealing with children of minority faiths. Primary schools should be abiding by those rules.”

Just over 90 per cent of primary schools are of a Catholic ethos and the School Admissions Act prohibits them from giving enrolment priority to baptised children where schools are oversubscribed. About 20 per cent have too many applications for the number of places.

‘Obvious absurdity’

A parent reluctant to be identified as he feared it could affect his child’s enrolment at a school in south Dublin said it was an “obvious absurdity” in the legislation that while it was illegal for schools to discriminate on the grounds of religion, they can “still ask the question and effectively discriminate”.

“The crucial, central pillar of the Act is not in force,” he said.

His family is not religious and his child is not baptised. He said when he made a query this year the school he wants his child to attend asked questions about what religion the family was and asked for a baptism certificate if there was one.

A large number of primary schools ask similar questions in enrolment forms.

“I rang the appeals section of the department twice and both times was told that any appeal of a school refusal would not succeed so long as schools can continue to ask questions about religion,” the parent said.

He added that: “Until the law changes so that the policy is that they can’t ask the baptism question, they are not going to uphold the legislation.”

Appeals advice

The department said in a statement that anybody seeking advice about an appeal under the Equal Status Act should seek the advice of the Workplace Relations Commission.

Atheist Ireland human rights officer Jane Donnelly said that although schools could not use information on religion to give preference to Catholics, "if your child was discriminated against on grounds of religion, how could you ever prove it?"

She added, however, that “it would be difficult to discriminate on grounds of religion and pretend not to, because you would have to get more than one person to agree – including the board of management. It might be easier to do in a small school but not in a larger one.”

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times