I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I intend to share time with Deputies Ruth Coppinger, Thomas Pringle and Catherine Murphy.
It is now three and a half weeks since the tremendous result in the marriage equality referendum, which was heralded as a social revolution by the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, and others. More than 62% of those who cast a vote voted for marriage equality. Now, the House has the chance to vote for employment equality to go with it. The referendum result was a powerful blow against discrimination, inequality and homophobia. It showed that the traditional picture of a socially conservative majority in society is simply and fundamentally incorrect. It showed that immense social change has taken place and that this of itself becomes a pressure point for more change and progress. The gay rights campaigner, Harvey Milk, once said that hope will never be silent. Those who mobilised in the recent referendum campaign will not now be silent. The tens of thousands who registered to vote, who came home to vote and who campaigned to convince others to vote "Yes" will not now be silent and will continue to campaign.
That Ireland was the first country to vote for marriage equality in a popular referendum sends a powerful signal throughout the world that marriage equality can be won and that change can happen. Moreover, it sends a signal for further change in this country. It remains the case that discrimination and homophobia continue in this State. We know that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, LGBTQ, people are seven times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than straight people. We know that young LGBTQ people face much higher rates of depression and self-harm. We know that, according to a recent EU survey, half of LGBTQ people were discriminated against in the past 12 months because they were LGBTQ. Almost one in five were discriminated against in the workplace in the previous 12 months and 8% had been physically attacked or threatened with violence. The vast majority of that discrimination and harassment goes unreported because people believe nothing will be done about it and change will not happen.
We know that discrimination, inequality and homophobia persist. While legal change cannot change all that in one fell swoop, it can send a signal that homophobia is not acceptable, as opposed to being enshrined in law. The ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men continues. It must be ended. We need gender recognition legislation that takes into account all the criticisms made by transgender people, including those under 18 years of age. We need this to be passed into law as soon as possible. In particular, and this is what this Bill from the Anti-Austerity Alliance is about, we need to end the incredible situation whereby church-run schools, hospitals or charitable institutions can discriminate against LGBTQ people, atheists, unmarried mothers, divorced people, minority faiths and others. Now is clearly the time to end all legal discrimination as a step towards real equality and a progressive secular State with separation of church and State.
The infamous section 37 of the Employment Equality Act that we are trying to remove is particularly offensive. It functions as an exemption to the employment equality legislation. It allows a religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes to discriminate against an employee or prospective employee to prevent them from undermining the religious ethos of the institution. This broad exemption covers thousands of workers in this State. It includes teachers, special needs assistants, nurses, doctors, health care assistants, charity workers and others. Given that close to 95% of our primary schools, 50% of our secondary schools and many of our hospitals are church-run, this is a particularly serious issue. The legal meaning of this section is to permit discrimination against workers to maintain the religious ethos of the institution. In practice, it means that LGBTQ teachers and atheist hospital workers can be legally discriminated against. It means that workers in a charitable institution who are unmarried mothers or who have relationships that may be deemed to be against the religious ethos of the Catholic Church can be legally discriminated against. It means they could be fired on those grounds without legal recourse to the equality legislation. It also means they could be and in fact are discriminated against in terms of promotion opportunities. Above all, it creates a chilling effect whereby LGBTQ workers, teachers in particular, are told not to be open about their sexuality. It adds to a socialising of homophobic attitudes and behaviour and cuts across those who attempt to intervene and stop homophobic bullying, for example.
This is not a new issue. It originally arose in the Eileen Flynn case. Eileen Flynn was sacked in August 1982 because of her relationship with a separated man. The decision was then upheld by the courts. This section has been opposed by the teachers' unions since it was introduced. In 2012, the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, promised to get rid of it. A Bill amending section 37 has been stuck in the Seanad for over two years. The Minister of State with responsibility for equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has not made the promised amendments yet and brought it forward. This is the first time this legislation has been brought on Second Stage in the Dáil. We have had enough of waiting for this, especially in the context of the referendum result. It is essential that this is gone in time before the new school year starts. I am pleased that the Bill has the support of a wide number of groups, including the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, the ASTI, the INTO, the TUI, Atheist Ireland, LGBT Noise and ICTU Youth.
I will go through our Bill quickly. It is very simple. It deletes the exemption that currently exists. Instead, it clearly states that no religious organisation "may give less favourable treatment on gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, Traveller community, disability grounds or the ground of race to employees or prospective employees in services it operates including educational or medical institutions". This would mean the discrimination against LGBTQ employees and others in schools, hospitals and elsewhere would no longer be legal. It replaces the relevant subsection with a more limited wording which would allow a religious organisation itself, rather than a service it operates or directs, to discriminate in favour of an employee on the basis or grounds of religion alone, where it is a justified occupational requirement. For example, this would allow the Catholic Church to discriminate in favour of Catholics when employing priests.
We have heard that the Government will not oppose this Bill and that is very welcome. We urge that it should not sit on the shelves after passing tomorrow night but that it should be quickly brought on to Committee Stage and enacted before the start of the next school term, which means before the summer break.
In previous debates in the Seanad the argument has been made that change such as we have proposed would be unconstitutional. We do not believe that to be the case. The Constitution gives every religious denomination the right to manage its own affairs. It also says that the State shall not make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status. Furthermore, it states that all citizens shall be held equal before the law. These conflicting rights are contained in the Constitution and it is up to the Oireachtas to get the balance between those rights.
As things stand, however, the balance is overwhelmingly in favour of the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs, even extending to institutions they run, control or direct. Our Bill would shift that balance more in the direction of the right of workers to equality. However, it would continue to recognise the right of religions to manage their own affairs. In any case, if there are particular issues with the wording in the Bill, they can be dealt with by way of appropriate amendments on Committee Stage.
Other Bills have been introduced in both the Dáil and Seanad which have attempted to address this issue. The Bill the Government has referred to repeatedly and which is on Committee Stage in the Seanad was introduced by Senator Ivana Bacik. That legislation would eliminate discrimination in publicly funded institutions, except on the grounds of religion where this is a "genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement". Although the Bill would represent an important step forward relative to the current situation, it is too limited. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has correctly described it as providing "a partial thaw in the chilling effect". The Bill has two key limitations. First, the fact it is limited to publicly funded institutions means church-run institutions which do not receive State funding could continue to discriminate on all the grounds. Employment rights should not depend on whether one's employer is in the private or public sector. Second, the Bill retains the grounds of religion as a means of discrimination, including in institutions run by religious denominations, as opposed to within the religious denominations themselves, where it is demonstrated to be necessary by the employer. This would mean a potential continuation of discrimination in schools, hospitals and charitable institutions. In particular, it would leave atheists open to discrimination and might also affect LGBTQ people and others who may be deemed to be in contravention of a particular set of religious beliefs.
Also in the Seanad, Senator Averil Power introduced a Bill in 2012 which would likewise represent a big step forward over the current situation. Again, however, it does not propose to delete the relevant subsection of section 37. The existence of a right to discriminate on ethos grounds would remain even if it would be somewhat restricted. In the Dail, the Bill published by Deputy Jonathan O'Brien of Sinn Féin in February 2013 has the same issues.
I return now to the more substantial points relating to this Bill. People mobilised and voted in significant numbers for marriage equality. It is time now to vote in this House for employment equality. There are those who ask what the big deal is in respect of section 37 given that no one has even been fired for being, for example, a gay teacher. The big deal, which is felt every day, is the chilling effect of the existing provision on employees in schools, hospitals and elsewhere. The big deal is the gay teacher who entered an online radio competition earlier this year to win a wedding online and felt obliged to pixelate her face in the video because she was nervous about being openly gay. As the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, said at the time: "People should be horrified to live in a country where people think they have to pixelate their faces in a competition to protect their jobs." According to The Irish Times, he followed up that comment by pledging to have the Employment Equality Acts changed by Easter. The big deal is those teachers who spoke out to thejournal.ie website last year about how they were shunned in school after being found out to be gay. They spoke of being dropped from training the football team, left isolated in the staffroom and feeling unable able to tackle homophobic bullying by students. It is a very big deal that we have laws in this country which allow discrimination against public sector workers.
The Bill we are bringing forward is part of the movement for progressive social change, which is a demand being heard throughout the country in the light of the marriage equality referendum. Teachers, health workers or any other workers should not be discriminated against because of their sexuality, religion or for any reason. More fundamentally, we should not have any church controlling our education or health services. We need a secular society, with properly funded and State-provided public services. A secular society means everyone is perfectly entitled and free to practise whatever religion they want, with no interference from the State. Indeed, the State would defend their right to do so. It also would mean, however, a separation between the actions of a church and the actions of the State, without, as has happened since the foundation of this State, a church being relied upon to run and control vital public services.
This Bill is an important step in that direction. It will remove the right of discrimination against LGBTQ people, atheists, people of minority religions, unmarried mothers and others. Passing it here will strike a blow for employment equality in keeping with the blow that was struck for marriage equality in the recent referendum. It must quickly be debated in committee and enacted as soon as possible. It needs to be done before another school year starts in September.