I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
We live in a State where it is legal to keep a child out of school based on the religion of his or her parents or the lack of religion. We live in a State where people of different religions work and live side by side but schools tend to segregate them. In surveys, 71% of people in the State have indicated that church bodies should have less influence over our local schools but 96% of primary schools are church-controlled. A number of organisations, including the Irish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children, Pavee Point, BeLonG To, the Children's Rights Alliance, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, Empowering People in Care, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and no less than the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child have stated this discrimination, on the grounds of religion, is completely and utterly wrong and an abuse of human rights. Nearly 72% of people agree with this so what is the problem? The only people with an issue would seem to be Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and, potentially, the Labour Party. These Deputies are the extreme rather than the norm if we compare them with the aspirations of people in society. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are extreme with many church and State matters. They believe Deputies should be forced to observe a denominational prayer and some of them believe rape victims should not have the right to terminations and are no more than vessels. Most people in society do not share that belief.
This Bill is far from radical and in most countries it would not even be an issue. There are two aspects to the Bill, the first being to abolish section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act, which allows schools to refuse to admit people; this is the so-called baptismal barrier. Our Bill goes further, as it stipulates that the curriculum must not be dominated by religion and there must be respect for students if they manage to get into a school. There should be an objective curriculum that caters for the needs of young people. The recent census indicates the number of non-religious people rose by 74% on the level five years before, with the Muslim population increasing by 29%, the Hindi population increasing by 34% and the number of people declaring themselves to be Catholic down to 78% of the population. That does not mean all of those are practising Catholics and want to see a continuation of the way schools are run. These are schools funded by the taxpayer and they should be for education and not faith formation. It is estimated that 24% of people have had their children baptised just so they can secure a school place. How long will this continue?
The Minister raised a number of issues opposing change in a speech he made in the new year. He argued that this generation of politicians had nothing to do with the current position and inherited it. The Minister knows it does not fit people's needs and his argument is completely wrong. The Education Act was only introduced in 1998 and it allows the characteristic life of the school to be permeated by spiritual or religious ethos. Catholic congregations are still being awarded schools; as recently as in the past couple of months in Castleknock, a secondary school was awarded to the Christian Brothers Edmund Rice Trust, which owes money within the abuse scheme. Why is that happening? That comes from the current generation of civil servants and politicians.
The other myth that comes up again and again is that the church stepped in when others were not willing to do so. The Minister said that in his speech. The reality is that since the 19th century, the Catholic Church in Ireland opposed a national school system. Cardinal Paul Cullen said it was very dangerous and "the aim is to introduce a mingling of Protestant and Catholic"; by God, would that not have been absolutely dreadful? I do not have time to expand the point and give a history lesson but the curtailment of State education and health continued not just unchecked, but was facilitated by the two big parties after Independence.
For nigh on a century it seems, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party in power relied on the church for authority, support and civil control. That is why we are in this ridiculous and absurd position. The majority of people want change but the only block is Dáil Éireann and, in particular, the two big parties. Of course, we have a State-funded school system but after the taxpayer pays for the land, which can be very expensive, school sites, buildings, staff, extensions and repairs, it hands over those schools to private, generally religious congregations, entrusting them with these State assets and the education of young people. It gives an inordinate amount of power over young people, who is admitted and how things are taught.
In the consultation process, the Minister recently outlined four options but each of them maintains discrimination. The first option regarding a catchment area still puts Catholics from the catchment area first and non-Catholics second. It is discrimination and it will not solve the problem because children will be segregated, if they attend the school, when it comes to the teaching of religion, or they will not be given the option of opting out, which is generally the case. In an overcrowded case, the school will be for Catholics only. The second option is the nearer school and the third relates to a quota of non-Catholics, as is happening in some cases anyway. Even option four, which gets rid of the baptismal barrier, would require pupils to conform to the school ethos, which is a major problem in many cases. The Le Chéile school in Tyrellstown is another one in my local area and it is dripping with Catholicism, as it is the first thing one sees. However, it states that it facilitates students from all religions.
Our Bill would also amend sections of the Education Act, vindicating the rights of students and the rights of parents when they get into a school. The opt-out, which is a constitutional right, is not practised, as the Minister knows, even when it is offered. A teacher from the Teachers for Choice group has indicated that in her school, the opt-out is never presented to any student. In the staff room a discussion took place when an atheist child landed in the school and the principal said the student was "in the wrong place" and it was a Catholic school. It was not too long before that child left. Such infringements on people are not uncommon and can be seen every day. Even when students are allowed to opt out, they tend to sit in the back of the room with a crayon, listening to the religious lesson.
Laughably, today the Government says it will oppose this Bill because it wants to protect minorities. Any party that voted last week to inflict a majority prayer on the national Parliament is hardly an arbiter of minority rights. The people who would benefit most from our Bill are minorities. To try to use them is a bit rich. Roopesh Panicker is in the Visitors Gallery tonight. His daughter was refused a place in approximately seven schools, as the Minister knows. She is now in a Catholic school and has asked her father when she will make her first communion. This is a Hindu child. Are there no rights for people of minority religions? A teacher posted on Facebook to say the class picture was taken last Saturday during the communion service. That was considered to be the year picture for the class. Three students did not make their first communion and they are not counted as being in the class. That is commonplace, as well as the inordinate amount of time spent in preparation.
We want to see an end to the baptismal barrier but we also need absolute change in the curriculum and life of schools. There is a fifth year student in the Gallery who spoke yesterday at our press conference about how no sex education has been offered throughout her school life. Anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, LGBT, is sidelined and told not to bring that up because it is a Catholic school. Is it not ironic that we held a referendum on same-sex marriage and people came out in droves to vote, yet people who are gay, transgender, bisexual or whatever are not allowed to be fully open about their sexuality? How long is that infringement going to continue? It is high time the Minister realised there is a movement in this country for separation of church and State, for example, in respect of the national maternity hospital and that people will want a say on the proposals of the Citizens' Assembly. Let us start with getting our schools out of the control of the church.