Address of Father Michael Drumm at recent meeting of the Council of the Catholic Schools Partnership
There has been public comment on section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts over recent months. Much of this comment has been negative in tone and has stated that this section seriously undermines the human rights of teachers working in denominational schools. It is important to bring some balance into this debate, not least because a provision like section 37 is all about the balancing of legitimate rights.
The Employment Equality Acts outlaw discrimination on nine stated grounds: gender, marital status, family, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the traveller community. There are some exceptions. People who are over 65 years of age or under 18 years of age can be treated differently than others and this does not amount to discrimination. The relevant minister can make special orders concerning the Garda Síochána, the prison service, emergency services and the Defence Forces, not least with regard to the grounds of age and disability.
Section 37 allows employers with a religious ethos to give “more favourable treatment” to employees on the religion ground. Thus a church, a temple, a synagogue, a mosque does not discriminate if it requires that certain employees must share the faith that is supported and celebrated in these institutions. If there were no such provision then these religious employers could never use religious adherence as a ground for employment even where it is clearly a relevant and important aspect of a particular position. Consider a pastoral worker in a parish, a youth worker in a diocese, a promoter of some faith-based project: it is surely reasonable to give more favourable treatment to those who share the religious faith that these positions seek to foster. Section 37 allows employers with a religious ethos to do just that. In so doing the Employment Equality Acts are giving expression to the constitutional right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs (see Constitution of Ireland article 44).
What then of denominational schools? The Constitution of Ireland acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family (article 42). Further, it respects the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide for the religious, moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children. Clearly, very many parents wish, in accordance with their constitutional rights, to provide this education for their children through denominational schools. These schools – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim – are founded on a particular religious ethos. Religious faith is experienced by believers as a source of hope and enlightenment (not a restriction or unintelligent), a gift (not a choice or acquisition) and a blessing (not a burden or constraint). Understood as such a fundamental human good, religious faith is something which believers naturally want to share with others, including their own children – indeed especially their children, for it is the very mark of parental love to give to one’s children one’s own most treasured gifts, be that one’s time, insight, material resources or appreciation of religious faith. The patrons, managers and employees of denominational schools have legal and moral obligations to parents to ensure that these schools live out the ethos that they espouse. If they were denied the means to do so, the constitutional right of parents to access such a denominational education could be nullified.
In all of this it must be emphasised that many employees of denominational schools experience religious faith as life-giving. The hope is that all members of the school community will experience the religious vision and ethos as an invitation, not a closed door.
The employment rights of teachers must be respected. Teaching is among the most demanding of all human endeavours. In most professions one deals with just one client, or a very small number of clients, at a time. Think of a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a journalist. Even in employments where the employee has notable responsibility for a large number of people (airline pilots, bus and train drivers) there is not the same face-to-face interaction as in teaching. The teacher must deal with 20, 25, 30 maybe 35 individual human persons at a time, all day, every day of the school year. And not just “deal with” – the teacher must seek to educate. That is why teachers are very tired at the end of each term.
In addition, it must be emphasised that the teacher is not interacting with adults but with children. Every day of the school year parents entrust their children to teachers. More than in any other employment, teachers act and speak in loco parentis. And for this reason schools have responsibilities unlike any other institutions. It is in this context that we must protect the employment rights of teachers. These legitimate rights must be reconciled and balanced with the rights of parents regarding the education of their children.
Striking the right balance is exactly the responsibility of our law makers. Section 37 is an effort to balance these legitimate rights. Those who propose to amend it must also seek balance. In doing so they should keep in mind that schools do not exist primarily to employ teachers but to assist parents in the education of their children. Nobody has ever proposed that we should reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in order to increase the number of teachers employed but rather to improve the educational opportunities for children. Schools are not data-processing centres; they are among the most notable of human institutions where parents want their children educated in accordance with their convictions and traditions.
Many European countries have provisions similar to section 37. European Union employment law clearly recognises the importance of ethos in religious institutions. Any rebalancing of Irish law should take account of the European directives. Denominational schools in Ireland are committed to protecting the rights of teachers. Legislation in this area, however, must maintain a balance with the rights of parents to have their children educated in a school with a living religious ethos and the rights of religious communities to establish and run educational and other institutions which give expression to their faith.
Notes to Editors
- Father Michael Drumm is chairperson of the Catholic Schools Partnership which has a council of twenty-two members representative of all the stakeholders in Catholic schools. This council is charged with implementing a strategy that will achieve the aims of the CSP. The members of the council are nominated by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Conference of Religious of Ireland, the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools, the Catholic Primary School Management Association, and the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools. Thus it is an umbrella body providing strategic thinking on the major issues facing Catholic schools. See www.catholicschools.ie
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444