Equal Participation in Schools Bill 2016: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to end religious discrimination in admission to primary and post-primary educational establishments and to provide for full participation of pupils of all faiths and none in primary and post-primary educational establishments.

We live in a State where in school admissions, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against a child based on that child's parents' religion or lack thereof. This Bill seeks to end that discrimination. We live in a State where we have a multitude of religious beliefs and a growing number of people of no religious belief yet in our schools we can segregate and discriminate on the grounds of religion. We live and work side by side with people of different beliefs yet our schools are separating people on the grounds of religious division based on parents' belief. This Bill would end that.

This Bill seeks to recognise that we live in a diverse society. Society has changed hugely since schools were established in many cases and since the Equal Status Act gave permission to schools to segregate on religious grounds based on parents' belief. There is a huge demand for change that has been shown by numerous polls. Equate Ireland has published polls showing that 62% of people agree that school patronage in Ireland should be a key priority for this Government and that it is seen as something that must be changed, 82% of people agree with the concept that the Irish education system should be reformed so that no child is excluded because of their religion or lack thereof and 87% of people agreed that the State has a responsibility to ensure children do not experience religious discrimination in the school curriculum.

This Dáil is very much behind that curve. It seems that the Government is attempting to back track on what was the perceived belief in the previous Government that there would be a change to section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act which permits this discrimination. Instead, it would seem from reports that the Government plans to introduce a new system that would allow patronage to remain largely in the hands of the Catholic Church, retain segregation and not get rid of what is called the baptism barrier. I think this is wrong and regressive. It is timely that we bring forward this Bill to put pressure on the Government to recognise that society has changed and that it should reflect that change.

As well as removing the baptism barrier and the deletion of section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act, the Bill also deals with some of the provisions in our Education Acts that take no account of children's religious viewpoint or lack of religion when they enter a school and allow them to be discriminated against throughout the school day. There is a constitutional right to opt out of religious instruction but that right is not facilitated in schools on a daily basis. It is a particular problem when large parts of the school timetable are given over to religious ceremonies, particularly First Holy Communion.

Those not of the Catholic religion or those not taking part in the ceremony are segregated within the class. In many cases, what happens is that a child is put at the back of the class and must still listen to all of the religious instruction that is given to the other children. The opt-out has to be facilitated and there has to be change in the education system whereby a school ethos does not prevail for all students throughout the school day. We need an opt-in system, not an opt-out. School facilities can be given over to parents who want to practise their religious beliefs after the school day ends. I am absolutely in favour of that. As a socialist, I stand for freedom of religious expression but I also stand for a complete separation of church and state. A person's religion or personal belief should not be imposed on others by the State's laws and at the taxpayer's expense. Who is paying for these schools? These are all taxpayer-funded schools. The staff and all the other facilities are paid for by the taxpayer. We also need to amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act to end religious discrimination against school staff. This is a very important Bill and the Government should take note of it and move with the times.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.