Humanist teacher loses case over Virgin Mary statue in school

Workplace commission report tells of altercation with caretaker over ‘May altar’


The attempted removal of a statue of the Virgin Mary at a school sparked a scuffle between a teacher and a school caretaker that left the latter visibly shaken and with a cut to his neck.

The computer science and maths teacher was sanctioned by his superiors after the two had their confrontation when the teacher removed the Virgin Mary statue on a makeshift “May altar” erected by the caretaker at the entrance to the school.

The matter was reported to gardaí and an investigation by the school ensued where the teacher — who is a humanist — was issued with a verbal warning.

Details of the incident, which occurred on May 1st 2015, are contained in a new Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) ruling which has found that the teacher concerned wasn’t discriminated against on the grounds of religion concerning the placing of the Virgin Mary and the altar at a prominent place in the school.

Adjudication Officer in the case, Enda Murphy said the humanist was the only person to complain about the May altar in a 30 year long tradition at the school of erecting it.

A witness to the immediate aftermath of the incident said the caretaker “stumbled out from behind the area after an aggressive altercation” and that the caretaker was “visibly shook from the incident”.

No parties are named in the case and the teacher — employed at the school since 1994 — told the hearing that the placing of the statue provoked deep unease and anxiety in him because of his deeply held beliefs.

He said the presence of the May altar “is unpalatable and offensive to him personally on the basis of his belief that the religious statue of the Virgin Mary is one associated with the repression of normal human sexuality”.

The teacher stated he sought to remove the religious statue “to bring it to the attention of management” but his employer didn’t accept this.

The accounts of what occurred between the teacher and caretaker are disputed but according to the school, the teacher told the caretaker in an aggressive manner “I’m putting it in your room so you can look at it” before removing the statue.

The school said when the teacher was then asked to put back the statue and when he refused, the caretaker sought to retrieve it from him. It was then that the teacher pushed the caretaker backwards causing him to sustain a cut to his neck and bruising to his hand.

The school in case was described as a Central Technical Institute (CTI) under the auspices of a regional Education and Training Board.

Dismissing the teacher’s claim for discrimination, harassment and victimisation, Mr Murphy said: “I am satisfied that the placement of the May altar is a passive symbol which is not intended for the purpose of imposing or manifesting Catholic or Christian beliefs upon the complainant personally.”

Mr Murphy also found that the presence of religious symbols such as the May altar is wholly legitimate, rational and proportionate to the object of the preservation of the Christian ethos within the CTI.

“I am satisfied that the actions of the complainant in attempting to remove the statute on the date in question served to undermine the religious ethos of the school,” Mr Murphy added.

He said he couldn’t accept that the teacher’s actions in attempting to remove the statue “were tantamount to an act of expression of his religious beliefs”.

“A more prudent course of action would have been to raise his concerns regarding the matter with management instead of taking it upon himself to remove the statue.”