The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland has sought the removal of the "Baptism barrier" from access to schools on the basis that it would make Ireland more attractive for a multinational workforce.
In a submission to the Department of Education, the chamber – which represents 700 US firms such as Facebook and Google – said it was vital that Ireland attracts talent to fill the growing number of opportunities within its companies.
“Now, more than ever, we must showcase our warm welcome and openness to the world. Ensuring that our education system has an access for all approach and barriers are removed are integral to highlighting our inclusive society,” the chamber said.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton is planning to remove religion as a factor in most school admissions by prohibiting Catholic primary schools from giving enrolment priority to baptised children in cases where they are oversubscribed.
However, minority faiths, such as the Church of Ireland, may continue to prioritise members of their religion to protect their ethos in cases where they are oversubscribed, under the proposals.
Legislation providing for the changes is due to be debated in the Oireachtas shortly.
The chamber said it welcomed Mr Bruton’s pledge to reform school admissions on the basis that it would help create a better education system.
Most of the main political parties in the Oireachtas support either the full or partial removal of the “Baptism barrier’, though they differ in their favoured approaches.
Catholic groups, by contrast, have warned that any such plans would create major constitutional problems and open the State to a series of legal challenges from parents and religious bodies.
A newly formed group, Faith in Our Schools, has told the department that the approach “openly discriminates against the conscience and educational rights of Catholic parents”, as well as the “religious, autonomy, and associational rights of Catholic faith schools.”
This group includes senior counsel Patrick Treacy, priest and theology expert Prof Eamonn Conway and theology lecturer Dr Thomas Finegan, among others.
In addition, the educational secretariat for more than 500 Catholic primary schools in the mid-west has warned the department the real issue is about “resources, not religion”.
St Senan's education office, which represents primary schools under the patronage of the Archbishop of Cashel & Emily and the bishops of Limerick, Killaloe and Kerry, said more school places were needed in oversubscribed schools.
It said the proposed move would have “serious implications for the ethos of faith-based schools”.
“It is difficult to see how the ethos could be maintained in circumstance where the majority of parents of children attending the schools are not supportive of the ethos,” it said.
“This may in practice, if not in theory, deprive parents who choose such schools for their children from State support. The approach brings the saying ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ to mind.”
By contrast, groups such as the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland have sought the complete abolition of religion in the admissions process for all schools. The group in its submission said it was very concerned that people from minority ethnic backgrounds should not have to choose to baptise their child into the Catholic faith to ensure access to a publicly funded school.