Schools have rights on ethos, says priest

Fr Michael Drumm says deletion of rule would undermine religious freedom

The Catholic Church’s main spokesman on education has defended the right of its schools to question employees on whether they support the school’s religious ethos during interviews.

However, Fr Michael Drumm said there were clear guidelines that this should not extend into questioning the private life of any employee or candidate.

Commenting in the wake of this week's Equality Tribunal judgment, which criticised a Catholic primary school for asking a teacher for her views on "homos" during an interview, Fr Drumm said if a question like that was asked "it is inappropriate".

However, he stressed that all boards of management and interview boards had received extensive training. “The guidance could not be any clearer. If people don’t follow the guidance that’s their responsibility.”


Fr Drumm, who is chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, said there was a balance to be struck between the rights of employees and the rights of schools to provide an education that adhered to a particular ethos.

Speaking in general, rather than about the tribunal case specifically, he said school managers and patrons “would have to be able to guarantee to the parents that the principal of the school and the key officers of the school would actually support the ethos of the school”.


The Government is planning to bring forward amending legislation to section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts, which would limit the right of schools to discriminate positively to protect their ethos.

Fr Drumm said the church would be “perfectly happy” if the law came into line with an EU employment equality directive, which triggered infringement proceedings against Ireland in 2008. “The European directive fully allows for religious bodies to have particular guarantees concerning employment in regard to upholding the ethos of the school.”

However, “I don’t think anybody is seriously suggesting a complete deletion of section 37 . . . Full deletion of the section will have very serious consequences legally concerning the rights of parents to a particular type of education.”

Asked whether a teacher’s position on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights was relevant to the school’s ethos, Fr Drumm said: “I would never in interviews have gone through a process where we have gone through every single issue: What’s a person’s perception of X, whatever X might be?

“The judgment with regard to ethos is a complex thing. It’s not reducible to one issue, and if it was reducible to one issue that would be deeply unfortunate. That should never be done.”


But could section 37 be regarded as a deterrent to teachers being open about their sexual orientation?

“We have heard that view expressed,” he said. “In our experience on the ground that is not the case . . . Our experience is not that section 37 is causing discrimination. We don’t accept that.”

He was speaking at St Ultans, Cherry Orchard, for the launch of Catholic Schools Week, which runs from January 25th to February 1st and "invites Catholic schools to give expression in a special way to the ethos of Catholic education".

The west Dublin primary school, which opened in 2006, provides weekly violin lessons to its 420 pupils under a music and arts programme supported by the Lauritzson Foundation, Dublin City Council and the Department of Education. It has two orchestras.

Principal Ena Morley said it had developed a unique model of education and social supports in what was a highly disadvantaged area so that St Ultans “might be a constant in the children’s lives if other aspects of their lives are unpredictable”.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column