INTO votes to challenge religious discrimination against teachers. Here is what they face.

The Irish National Teachers Association has voted to lobby to remove a religious education qualification that is required by all teachers who wish to teach in Catholic primary schools. They will also form a task force to look at the future of primary school patronage.

This highlights one of Atheist Ireland’s main policy issues – that teachers in Ireland can be legally discriminated against on the grounds of religion. As the vast majority of schools in Ireland are managed by Patrons with a religious purpose, access to the teaching profession has been curtailed.

It is a Catholic ethos that prevails in the majority of schools. Part of a Catholic ethos is to evangelise. That is the main mission behind Catholic schools and the reason for their existence.

In order to get a teaching position in a Catholic school, teachers must take part and uphold the evangelising mission of the Catholic Church.

This is how the Church defines evangelisation:-

Pre-evangelisation: Opening up the sensibilities and imagination of young people who are uninformed or alienated in order to allow them to experience god in a meaningful way in their lives.

Evangelisation: For those who have a basic openness to religious learning, a direct approach is suggest, both at the informational and formational levels, seeking to help young people deveop an affiliation and comitment to God, Church and neighbour.

Support: For those who have already made a commitment to the world of religion, personl mentoring is suggested, especially at times of transition, in order to help youg people develop their relationship with god in a more personal way.

(Share the Good News – National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland)

The State provides for the education of minorities in Catholic schools. Teachers are legally bound to uphold the evangelising of minorities into a Catholic understanding of the world. It is not difficult to understand why minorities would not wish to  teach in such schools. They would see it as undermining freedom of conscience and the rights of parents and their children.

Successive governments have stood over this religious discrimination of minorities.

Section 37 (1) of the Employment Equality Act states that:-

A religious, educational or medical institution which 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 shall not be taken to discriminate against a person for the purposes of this Part or Part II if—

(a) it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution, or

(b) it takes action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.

The term ‘ethos’ is not defined in the Act, notwithstanding the fact that action can be taken against a teacher if it is deemed reasonably necessary. This has a chilling impact on teachers. It is one of the areas where the law is not defined. The impact of this is that anything goes, and those in control can oblige teachers to uphold their religious ethos.

At present there is concern regarding defining the word ‘hate’ in the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022, as a failure to do so will impact of freedom of speech. We already know that the failure to legally define ‘ethos’ has had an impact on minorities in the education system.

There was no obligation under the Constitution to put this particular type of legislation in place, but successive governments have stood over it and refuse to amend it, or put in place guidelines on what is expected of teachers in schools.

The Supreme Court in 1998 found that this Section of the Act was not unconstitutional. They stated that:

No serious criticism can however be advanced against s. 37, sub-s. 2 which entitles an institution to prefer a particular candidate on the grounds of his or her religion if in fact being of that religion is an occupational qualification for the post in question. The attack has been directed more against sub-s. 1 which entitles an institution to give more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee “where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution” or to take action “which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution”.

The use of the words “reasonable” and “reasonably necessary” implies that the test is to be an objective one and that the matter is to be resolved on a case to case basis.

Counsel assigned by the Court point to the use of the word “ethos” in sub-s. 1 and submit that the religious institution or denomination will state in each case what its “ethos” is and that the test will in fact become subjective. It is true that “ethos” is a vague term and is nowhere defined in the Bill. Chambers English Dictionary gives, inter alia, the following meaning to the word “the distinctive habitual character and disposition of an individual group”. It is probably true to say that the respect for religion which the Constitution requires the State to show implies that each religious denomination should be respected when it says what its ethos is. However the final decision on this question as well as the final decision on what is reasonable or reasonably necessary to protect the ethos will rest with the court and the court in making its overall decision will be conscious of the need to reconcile the various constitutional rights involved.

This leaves teachers in an unenviable position that they do not know exactly what constitutes the undermining of the religious ethos of a school.

Other teachers welcome the opportunity to evangelise all students into a catholic understandig of the world. The Constitutional and human rights of minorities takes second place to the evangelising mission of the school. Boards of Management are legally obliged under the Education Act 1998 to uphold the ethos of the Patron.

The Catholic Church states that:

“The teaching staff of a Catholic school will be actively involved in promoting the Mission Statement and policies approved by the Board of Management.

Teachers will be employed on the understanding that they will commit themselves actively to supporting the ethos of the school. At the same time, the school will respect the freedom of conscience of teachers in maters of personal religous belief and practice”

(Share the Good News – National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland)

The school will respect your personal religious belief as long as you actively support a catholic ethos. One of the purposes of a catholic ethos is to evengelise. How can you respect the personal religious belief of a teacher while obliging them to evangelise children into catholicism?

There does not seem to be any understanding that some people object on conscience grounds to evangelising children against the wishes of their parents. In addition the school is only required to respect a personal religious conscience, they are not required to respect those with non religious philosophical convictions who could object on conscience grounds to evaneglising any child.

Given our education system, Section 37 helps to keep minorities out of the teaching profession. Because there are no state guidelines or a definition of what is reasonable or reasonably necessary to uphold a religious ethos, the Catholic church can continue to discriminate against minorities and ensure that only those willing to toe the catholic line will have access to the teaching profession.

This situation undermines freedom of conscience and religion and does not promote inclusion and diversity in the education system. It is legal religious discrimination, and Atheist Ireland will continue to campaign for it to be removed.






Atheist Ireland