Bill to weaken religious ethos protection clause will go before Cabinet

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A Bill aimed at weakening a religious ethos protection clause in the Employment Equality Act is to go before the Cabinet. It seeks to amend Section 37 of the Act. with a view to preventing religious-run schools from dismissing staff on the grounds of being a lone parent or a divorcee, or on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Bill will be brought before the Cabinet by Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald.

According to the Irish Times, the legislation will be largely modelled on a Labour party bill introduced by Senator Ivana Bacik, which will be debated in the Seanad tomorrow. The amendment aims to substantially weaken the opt-out that the religious-run, or controlled, schools or hospitals currently have from certain aspects the Employment Equality Act.

Last year, Senator Bacik said in the Seanad that her Bill “provides that a State-funded institution cannot take action to prevent the undermining of its ethos unless by reason of the employment itself or the context, the action taken is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means used are appropriate and necessary. A final provision in the new section 37(1) provides for a presumption of discrimination - in other words, an additional hurdle for a State-funded institution to get over if it seeks to justify any discrimination.”

Under current law, educational or medical institutions controlled by religious orders and which promote religious values are not considered to be discriminating if they give favourable treatment to an employee or prospective employee “in order to maintain the religious ethos of that institution”.

The Bill is aimed at protecting gay and lesbian teachers, lone parents and divorced teachers in particular. However, religious schools already employ teachers who fall into these categories. Section 37 is deemed necessary when a teacher openly flouts the ethos of their employer.

Section 37 of the Act has previously been upheld by the Supreme Court and an investigation into whether it flouts EU equality legislation was withdrawn.

All of the main Churches on the island plus the Jewish and Muslim communities lobbied for the section in the mid-1990s on the grounds that religious organisations should not be forced to employ individuals who would undermine their ethos.

The Times report is unclear about many important details about scope of the legislation, such as whether schools would retain any rights to uphold their schools' ethos in situations where a teacher is directly contradicting or undermining the school's ethos in classroom conversations.

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