Protecting the rights of atheist, secular and minority faith teachers in Irish schools

One of Atheist Ireland’s priorities this year will be campaigning for the right of atheists and religious minorities to access the teaching profession. As well as being able to legally discriminate against pupils and their parents, State funded Irish schools can also legally discriminate against teachers on the ground of religious belief. Atheist Ireland has made the following Submission to the Department of Education Action Plan for Education for 2017 regarding the rights of atheist, secular and minority faith teachers.

The Government Action Plan for Education says as one of its headline actions:

Teacher education – Launch a competitive call to increase access to teacher education by students from members of the Irish Traveller community, students with disabilities and students from under-represented socio-economic groups and communities.

Conscientious atheists, secularists and religious minorities are an under-represented group in the teaching profession. Indeed, they are effectively barred from accessing the teaching profession, because they cannot get a job teaching consistently with their religious or philosophical convictions, given Section 37.1 of the Employment Equality Act 1998.

1. UN Human Rights Committee

In 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Committee raised issues in relation to Article 2 (Freedom from Discrimination), Article 18 (Freedom of Conscience), Article 25 (Access to Public Service without Discrimination) and Article 27 (the Rights of Minorities). It concluded:

Freedom of religion

21. The Committee is concerned at the slow pace of progress in amending the provisions of the Constitution that oblige individuals wishing to take up senior public office positions, such as President, members of the Council of State and members of the judiciary, to take religious oaths. It is also concerned about the slow progress in increasing access to secular education through the establishment of non-denominational schools, divestment of the patronage of schools and the phasing out of integrated religious curricula in schools accommodating minority faith or non-faith children. It expresses further concern that under section 37 (1) of the Employment Equality Acts, religious-owned institutions, including in the fields of education and health, can discriminate against employees or prospective employees to protect the religious ethos of the institution (arts. 2, 18, 25 and 27).

The State party should take concrete steps to amend articles 12, 31 and 34 of the Constitution that require religious oaths to take up senior public office positions, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 22 (1993) on freedom of thought, conscience and religion, concerning the right not to be compelled to reveal one’s thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief in public. It should also introduce legislation to prohibit discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religion, belief or other status, and ensure that there are diverse school types and curriculum options available throughout the State party to meet the needs of minority faith or non-faith children. It should further amend section 37 (1) of the Employment Equality Act in a way that bars all forms of discrimination in employment in the fields of education and health.

This is also a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids religious discrimination.

2. Employment Equality Act 1998

Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act 1998 gives a religious, educational or medical institution that is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes or whose objectives include the provision of services in an environment which promotes certain religious values permission to discriminate on religious grounds.

In order to train as a teacher and gain employment trainee teachers must take a Certificate in Religious studies (CRS). As the vast majority of schools in the state are religious, it is nearly impossible to gain employment as a teacher without a CRS.

This was the subject of an article in the Irish Times on 29th of April 2014, “Trainee teachers are warned career prospects depend on religious faith”.

The Catholic Church is a Patron body to the vast majority of schools at second level, and therefore Section 37.1 applies at second level also.

The state supports this discrimination, as the Constitution permits religious discrimination in order to buttress religion. Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act grants exemptions to religious bodies at the expense of the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and the right to private and family life of individuals.

3. Pre-Evangelisation

The Joint Managerial Body AMCSS Secretariat’s ‘Guidelines on the Inclusion of Students of Other Faiths in Catholic Secondary Schools’ states that:

“The general programme of the school will be considered as a form of pre-evangelisation.”

Pre-evangelisation of pupils who are not Catholic does not constitute respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of minorities, and human rights law would regard it as indoctrination as it does not respect the rights of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their philosophical convictions. Nevertheless, it is official policy in the majority of schools in the country.

Teachers would fall foul of Section 37 if they refused to pre-evangelise, as they would not be upholding the religious ethos of the school. In essence, in order to take up employment as a teacher, a person must be willing to undermine the human rights of minorities who have no option but to send their children to school.

4. Dublin City University

St. Patricks Teacher Training College and the Mater Dei Institute are now colleges of Dublin City University. We now have a secular University promoting religious discrimination in access to the Teaching profession. Both colleges will still retain their religious ethos which is incompatible with human rights.

Dublin City University now has a public service duty under the Human Rights and Equality Act 2014.

42. (1) A public body shall, in the performance of its functions, have regard to the need to
(a) eliminate discrimination,
(b) promote equality of opportunity and treatment of its staff and the persons to whom it provides services, and
(c) protect the human rights of its members, staff and the persons to whom it provides services.

(2) For the purposes of giving effect to subsection (1), a public body shall, having regard to the functions and purpose of the body and to its size and the resources available to it—
(a) set out in a manner that is accessible to the public in its strategic plan (howsoever described) an assessment of the human rights and equality issues it believes to be relevant to the functions and purpose of the body and the policies, plans and actions in place or proposed to be put in place to address those issues, and
(b) report in a manner that is accessible to the public on developments and achievements in that regard in its annual report (howsoever described).

To date, there is no indication from Dublin City University how they intend to comply with their public service duty to eliminate discrimination and promote human rights in the teaching profession.

Atheist Ireland
Atheist Ireland