Funding of Protestant schools

 

Madam, – In over 40 years of working in Protestant secondary schools in the Republic, I have had many contacts with colleagues in Northern Ireland. In reply to their frequent questions, I have always said that the Protestant schools are assured of fair treatment from the Department for Education. What am I to say to them now, in the light of the Minister’s cuts in funding and allegations that the department is “out to get” the Protestant schools? – Yours, etc,

LESLEY WHITESIDE,

Marlinstown,

Mullingar, Co Westmeath.

Madam, – In my time as a pupil of The King’s Hospital (almost 10 years ago) there were a minority of parents who had to make tough sacrifices to provide their children with what they saw as the best possible education. But they were just that, a minority. The vast majority of the pupils were from very wealthy and privileged backgrounds.

There may be a case for keeping the grants for the rural Protestant schools, but the private Dublin schools simply do not provide an inclusive service to the Protestant community.

They are in essence no different from the likes of Blackrock or Gonzaga, and they should be treated no differently.

In fact, the sooner our Republic stops subsidising the elitist education of all the upper middle classes the better. – Yours, etc,

JONATHAN ARLOW,

Roselawn Road,

Castleknock, Dublin 15.

Madam, – The Government’s belief that the Constitution requires the withdrawal of special funding for Protestant schools is at least debatable.

Admittedly, Article 44.2.4 expressly provides that “Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations” – on one view, the provision of special funding to Protestant schools might appear to infringe this provision.

However, one could argue that the type of discrimination caught by this provision is unjust discrimination where two similarly situated groups are, without justification, treated differently by the State. If so, then arguably this provision would not prevent the State providing additional support to Protestant schools where such aid is intended to “level the playing field”, so to speak .

One could also argue that Article 44.2.4 should not be interpreted in isolation but should be construed in the light of the guarantee of religious freedom in Article 44.2.1, and the approach taken by the Supreme Court to the interpretation of Article 44.2.3, which prohibits the State from discriminating generally on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.

Thus in the Quinn’s Supermarket case in 1971, the prohibition on religious discrimination was put to one side in order to facilitate a religious practice, Jewish observance of the Sabbath.

A few years later, the same approach was adopted in the McGrath and Ó Ruairc case in order to protect a decision of ecclesiastical authorities, in this case, the dismissal of the plaintiffs from employment in Maynooth College because they had applied for laicisation. More recently, in 1996, the Supreme Court appears to have accepted that the promotion of social conditions conducive to, though not strictly necessary for, the fostering of religious beliefs may qualify the prohibition on religious discrimination. Thus in the Employment Equality Bill reference, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of legislative provisions permitting religious bodies operating religious, educational or medical institutions to discriminate on grounds of religion in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution.

According to the court, “It is constitutionally permissible to make distinctions or discriminations on grounds of religious profession, belief or status insofar – but only insofar – as this may be necessary to give life and reality to the guarantee of the free profession and practice of religion in the Constitution.”

Admittedly the courts have yet to consider whether this approach also applies to Article 44.2.4 but if it does, then it seems to me it could offer constitutional protection for the provision of special funding for Protestant schools. – Yours, etc,

GERRY WHYTE,

Law School,

Trinity College Dublin.