Impact of O’Keeffe judgment
Sir, – The Louise O’Keeffe judgment could begin the end of State-supported religious discrimination in Irish schools. The European Court of Human Rights has told the State it was responsible for protecting Louise O’Keeffe’s human rights while she was in school, regardless of whether it runs the schools directly. And that ruling has implications for all of the human rights that are breached by religiously-run schools in Ireland.
Ireland has a unique education system. The State does not run Irish schools directly. Instead it appoints patron bodies (almost all of them churches) to run the schools on the basis of their own religious ethos. This “ethos” rule enables religiously-run national schools, despite being funded by the State, to discriminate on the ground of religion.
For example, they can give preference to members of their own religion in admission, and they can integrate their religious ethos throughout the entire curriculum. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has told Ireland this breaches the human rights of secular parents and their children, and has asked Ireland to provide nondenominational education widely throughout the State.
But the State has actively protected this discriminatory “ethos” rule, by giving religious schools exemptions within the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act. And when the State passed the European Convention on Human Rights Act, the new Act applied only to breaches of human rights by “organs of the state”, which did not include schools.
The European Court has now told Ireland that the State is responsible for protecting the human rights of children while in national schools, regardless of whether or not the State directly runs the schools. And the court has also told Ireland that it must provide an effective remedy for people whose human rights have been breached.
Ireland cannot claim we have an effective remedy while it excludes schools from the European Convention Act. If it includes schools within that Act, it will have to remove the “ethos” exemptions from the Equality Acts. And if it doesn’t include schools within the Convention Act, then parents can go directly to the European Court and explain that they have no effective remedy in Ireland.
The issue may become even more complicated. It may be that the Constitution protects the right of religiously-run national schools to behave in this way. If that is the case, then we will have to either amend the Constitution or else accept that our Constitution is not compatible with international human rights law.
The State can respond to this challenge in two ways. It can circle the wagons around the “religious ethos” argument, and continue to discriminate against its own citizens until it is forced to stop, or it can lead the way to a fair and democratic society where all citizens are treated equally before the law. – Yours, etc,
Drumcondra, Dublin 9.