Do teachers have religious freedom?


A teacher discriminated against because she is not a Catholic won maximum damages at the Equality Tribunal recently. The case raises important issues about the continuing influence of the Catholic church in teacher training

IN A recent case before the Equality Tribunal, a Catholic school was found to have discriminated against a teacher on the grounds of religion. The school withdrew the offer of a permanent post after it discovered that the teacher was a member of the Church of Ireland. Michelle McKeever was asked about her religion after she failed to furnish a Catholic religious certificate to the board of management at a Co Cavan school.

The cases raises fresh questions about the compulsory requirement of the religion certificate, the teaching of this certificate in mainstream teacher colleges and the continued existence of legislation which allows schools to discriminate on the basis of religious ethos.

The certificate in religious studies is a compulsory requirement of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference for teachers working in Catholic-managed primary schools. These comprise more than 90 per cent of schools in the Irish system.

The vast majority of students take the optional certificate in religious studies,the president of St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dr Pauric Travers says. The college welcomes students for the certificate both of “deep religious faith and none”, he explains.

“Our position as a teacher education provider funded by the State is that we meet the needs of an evolving society in an open way, being inclusive and respectful of diversity.”

The college made a change to its religious education offerings at the beginning of the academic year in response to public debate, Travers says.

The change was not to the optional Catholic religion certificate but to the religious education course. Religious education is part of the national primary school curriculum and forms a compulsory part of the education degree.

However this year the college is offering a course in ethics to students as an alternative. “That is us responding to a perceived need,” he says.

Daniel O’Connell, head of religious studies in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, says that most students choose to take the certificate but he explains that some students feel pressure to take it for future employment prospects.

He does not see an issue with the certificate being part of a State-funded degree course.

Ireland is at an “in-between stage” of having an over-representation of Catholic primary schools and there is an expectation that teachers know something of the tradition, values and ethos, he says.

This could change “if provision went down hugely” and it would be an issue over the next 20 years, he says.

The optional certificate in religious studies is academic and not a “confessional indoctrination,” he says.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin alluded to such change in patronage last month at the graduation ceremony of teachers in St Patrick’s College when he said that education would be different in the future as “new patronage systems will replace the almost monopoly of religious schools”.

Asked about the continued need for the certificate, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference spokesman says that under the primary school curriculum the school is responsible for providing religious education that matches its ethos. “Accordingly a primary teacher must be qualified to teach religious education according to the ethos of the school,” the statement outlined.

The Irish National Teacher’s Organisation (INTO) has “no difficulty” with teachers being asked for the certificate, as long as it is open and transparent, says equality officer Deirdre O’Connor.

While the certificate is formally required, anecdotally, many schools do not look for it, she says.

The Church of Ireland College of Education has a compulsory religious education element in its curriculum to prepare teachers for “reformed faith” primary schools.

There is no religious certificate required but there is “probably some preference” in seeing someone that has a familiarity with the Church of Ireland religious syllabus says Anne Lodge, principal of the Church of Ireland College of Education. However there is not a blanket refusal to employ people who do not have this. “We’ve moved on from there,” she says.

Lodge is “surprised” by the McKeever case as she is aware of many teachers of various faiths working in different denominational schools. “There are no issues around this and it doesn’t seem to be a reason for blocking employment in the normal course of events.” she says.

While McKeever won her case as she was directly discriminated against because of her membership of the Church of Ireland, an exception still applies allowing schools to discriminate if it believes its religious ethos is under threat. Significantly this section, 37.1, of the Employment Equality Act, was not used as a defence in the McKeever case.

Many gay and lesbian (LGBT) teachers feel this could be used against them if they are open about their sexuality. The Equality Authority has pointed out that this tension is set to be magnified by the introduction of the civil partnership bill next year.

Many gay teachers in religious schools feel it is “being held over them”, says Cathal O’Riada, chairperson of the INTO LGBT teacher’s group. “It’s not being invoked but it’s still there and it’s a threat all of the time,” O’Riada says. “These teachers are nervous that their orientation will affect their promotion prospects,” and they tend to hide their sexuality at interviews, he adds.

There is much anecdotal evidence from religious schools that people are told to “keep quiet” about their sexuality, he says. “That’s kind of crazy in this day and age.”

A call for a change of the religious ethos exemption was made by the Equality Authority at its 20th anniversary conference in October. At the conference, spokesman Brian Merriman described as an “area of potential friction” the enactment of the civil partnership legislation and the existence of the exemption.

“Employees of religious-based institutions, on finally being granted legal recognition for their family life may have conflict in applying for leave traditionally associated with partnership or marriage or family leave,” he says.

People may be “outed” by lawful declarations of beneficiaries in insurance schemes or pensions “despite a legal status for such relationships”.

“It may be timely to review this exemption,” Mr Merriman says. In response to a query on the application of the exemption in the case of gay teachers, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops says: “The law allows for a school to be mindful of its ethos in the employment of its staff. It is part of the responsibility of the board of management of the school to maintain the ethos of the school. Employees should not undermine the ethos of the school.”

The religious exemption – and religious cert

THE EXEMPTION to the Employment Equality Act 1998 allows a school to discriminate against an employee or prospective employee to maintain its religious ethos.

Former Minister for Justice John O’Donoghue applied to the European Union for an exemption to the European Equality Directive in 2000.

At the time he said the exemption would preserve the right of denominational schools to uphold their religious ethos when recruiting staff.

Concerns were voiced at the time that it would enshrine in legislation the decision in the late Eileen Flynn case in 1985 in which the dismissal of a teacher from a Catholic school because of her relationship with a married man was upheld by the High Court.

The text of exemption 37.1 reads:

A religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes or whose objectives include the provision of services in an environment which promotes certain religious values shall not be taken to discriminate against a person if:

(a) it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution, or

(b) it takes action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.

What is the Catholic certificate?

The certificate in religious studies is a requirement of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference for teachers in Catholic managed primary schools.

The certificate is taught as an optional part of the Bachelor of Education degree at four of the teacher training colleges which have Catholic links. It can also be taken separately by teachers who took degrees abroad or in colleges where it is not offered.

It is usually taught over three years and covers subjects such as Christian foundations, the creed and trinity, theology, religious diversity, liturgy and spirituality. The certificate is also required for teachers in Catholic-managed primary schools in the UK. Separately, religious studies is a compulsory part of Bachelor of Education degrees. In Catholic teacher-training colleges this focuses on the Alive-O Catholic primary school curriculum.

The background to the case

MICHELLE McKEEVER was awarded more than €12,000 by the Equality Tribunal after it found that a Co Cavan school had discriminated against her on the grounds of religion when she applied for a permanent post.

Ms McKeever, who is a member of the Church of Ireland, applied for a job in Knocktemple national school, Virginia, in May 2007.

Subsequently, she was contacted by the principal and the chairperson and offered a permanent post. However the offer was withdrawn after she was questioned in a telephone call about holding the Catholic religion certificate.

McKeever had said she was willing and able to teach the Catholic Alive-O religious curriculum. The equality officer in the case concluded that a school board meeting in July 2007 was advised by the chairperson that the complainant did not have the religious certificate.

The officer concluded that not only was the complainant’s religion discussed, but it influenced the board of management in withdrawing the offer that had been made. This amounted to discrimination on the grounds of religion.

McKeever has since secured a permanent post in another school.