Legal questions over plan to remove school ‘Baptism barrier’

Legislation yet to be examined by Attorney General

Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon says the issue of children of no faith, or a different faith, being ‘exposed to religious influence’ in Catholic state-funded schools must still be addressed. Photograph: Eric Luke

Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon says the issue of children of no faith, or a different faith, being ‘exposed to religious influence’ in Catholic state-funded schools must still be addressed. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Serious legal questions remain unanswered regarding the Government’s proposal to end the “Baptism barrier” for Catholic school admissions, Fianna Fáil has said.

The party’s education spokesman, Thomas Byrne TD, said a “huge” amount of work remained to be done between the Department of Education and the Attorney General on the proposals.

“This raises serious questions over whether his plan can actually be implemented,” he said.

He said Minister for Education Richard Bruton needed to set out how his legislation would work in practice and how long it would take for the proposal to be implemented should it get legal approval.

“The revelation that he has failed to carry out even the most basic of constitutionality checks indicates that he hasn’t put much effort into his plan. The groundwork clearly hasn’t been carried out,” Mr Byrne said.

Mr Bruton announced on Wednesday that Catholic primary schools will not be able discriminate on the basis of religion in their admissions policies.

However, minority faiths – such as the Church of Ireland – may continue to do so in order to protect their ethos in cases where they are oversubscribed.

It is understood that while Mr Bruton has obtained preliminary legal advice on the move, any new legislation would need to be examined by the Attorney General.

He has said he wanted to progress new laws without delay and was examining the best way of doing this.

Previous ministers argued that it was not possible to dismantle the Baptism barrier due to competing articles of the Constitution which both protect religion and protect against discrimination.

Emily Logan, the chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, on Thursday welcomed Mr Bruton’s plans as “sophisticated” and a good way to deal with a difficult situation.

‘Religious exposure’

Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon described the move as “positive step towards ensuring equal access to schools for the majority of children”.

But he added: “The issue of religious teaching and influence in the school day will also have to be dealt with.

“Children of no faith, or a different faith, will still be exposed to religious influence if attending a Catholic State-funded school, and this must be managed in a suitable way that fully considers their right.”

Under Mr Bruton’s new Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, all schools will be obliged to set out their arrangements for students who want to opt-out of religious instruction classes.

The legislation does not oblige schools, however, to provide accessible alternatives to religious instruction classes.

Catholic primary schools have argued against making specific arrangements in law which could have major resource implications for schools.

The campaign group Equate said the only full equality and children’s rights option was to end the Baptism barrier for all publicly funded schools.

“While we acknowledge this as progress, we remain committed to ensuring that a child’s religion or non-religion is never a factor in their acceptance to a publicly funded school,” said the group’s director Michael Barron.

‘Discrimination’

Catholic schools, however, have since hit out at Mr Burton’s plans, which they say will discriminate against religious families.

The educational office of the Catholic bishops said the move was unfair and would treat Catholic parents differently from all other faiths.

Ferdia Kelly, chief executive of the Catholic Schools Partnership, said the plans will not solve the problem of access to oversubscribed schools as no additional places are being provided.

The Catholic Primary School Management Association also questioned the plans and said resources not religion were the real issue in admissions debate.

Séamus Mulconry, the group’s general secretary, said just 1 per cent of those turned down a school place in the Dublin area had a Baptism certificate, based on a survey of its schools.

“The issue the Minister rightfully seeks to address has more to do with the lack of school places than anything to do with an issue surrounding Baptism certificates,” he said.

Mr Bruton, however, said some 15,000 additional school places are being provided each year to cope with an expanding school-aged population.

A spokesman said there was no evidence of a shortage of school places and the Department of Education carefully monitored supply and demand across the country.