Equal Participation in Schools Bill 2016: Second Stage [Private Members]

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.

I thank Deputy Coppinger for bringing forward this Bill. I was curious to see the Government's amendment to a Bill which concerns equal participation in schools. One could not think of something that could appear more obvious or less controversial than such a Bill, yet the Government has put down an amendment signalling its intent to block the further passage of this Bill. That is about as clear as it gets: this Government does not believe in equal participation in school, which makes me think Fine Gael should change its slogan to "The best small country in the world to discriminate against children" because that is the thrust of its amendment, or "The best small country in the world to brainwash children and shove a particular religious ethos down their throats regardless of whether they share that religious view or have no religious belief whatsoever". The Government proposes to retain a status quo where it is alright in law to discriminate against particular groups of children. That is shameful. The Irishness of it is brilliantly summed up in the famous section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 which states:

An educational establishment does not discriminate [...] where the establishment is a school providing primary or post-primary education to students and the objective of the school is to provide education in an environment which promotes certain religious values, it admits persons of a particular religious denomination in preference to others or it refuses to admit as a student a person who is not of that denomination [...].

Let me cut that short: "An educational establishment does not discriminate [where] .... it admits persons of a particular religious denomination in preference to others or it refuses to admit as a student a person who is not of that denomination [...]". It does not discriminate if it does discriminate. That is what our law says. It is unbelievable. One could not make it up. This was a Fianna Fáil Bill.

The religious Taliban is not a distant exotic threat. It exists in this country. The law continues to give it the right to dominate our schools and it is represented faithfully into the 21st century by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It really is unbelievable. That means for young people of minority faiths or no faith that they are isolated, excluded and made feel different. What a shameful thing to do to young people. It is unconscionable that the Government can stand over that continuing.

When I heard the school student, Megan, speak at our press conference about how this impacts on the quality of education, it shocked me and made me think of James Joyce and A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, which I would recommend that the members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael read. It is clear they have never read it, chapter 3 in particular, where the priest in a retreat lectures the schoolchildren about the hell and damnation they will suffer if they give any expression to sexual appetite or if they refuse to submit to the authority of God, if they refuse to accept that the divine power is one to which they have to submit. Joyce brilliantly characterises the guilt he felt as a child and the fear and terror that he would suffer retribution if he had sexual feelings or refused to submit to the diktat of the religious authorities.

This has very serious implications. Its modern version is incredibly still going on, as Deputy Coppinger said, when 80% of schools are dominated by a particular religious ethos. They refuse to give proper sex education, which affects the health and safety of our children, because it does not suit their religious ethos. They refuse even to acknowledge the existence of LGBT people, or to educate our children about sexually-transmitted diseases and how to protect themselves. They make young people feel guilty about sexual feelings and so on. It is shameful that we allow that to persist but that is what the Government proposes to do. Deputy Coppinger's Bill proposes to remove that imperative in the law brought in by Deputy Micheál Martin. This is not a legacy issue or the residue of a dark distant past but Deputy Martin’s decision in 1998 to allow the characteristic spirit of the school to pervade the school day and that means in the vast majority of schools the Catholic or Christian ethos and all that goes with it.

Instead of encouraging young people to think for themselves and educate them properly about sexuality, reproductive health and so on, the school is allowed to deny them those things or shove a particular doctrine down their throats. It is absolutely scandalous that the Government would allow that to continue.

I will conclude by saying how angry I am that this is justified in the Government amendment by reference to the need to protect minority religions and faiths. Let me be absolutely clear. I would fight to the death for the right of somebody to profess and hold a religious belief and practise it. The reality is that by allowing the current situation to pertain, anybody who has a minority faith or is of no faith is being discriminated against. The Government is not upholding a diversity of religious views or the rights of those of no faith. Rather, it is actively allowing discrimination against minorities and those with no religious faith.

The Bill proposes that school facilities should be made available to those of particular religious beliefs or denominations after school hours. An education system that is entirely funded by the public in school buildings that are funded, built and maintained by the public should not allow a particular religious denomination to take advantage of and exploit those public facilities in order to shove a particular religious doctrine down the throats of children and exclude, isolate and deny rights to those who do not share those beliefs or who have different beliefs. I appeal to the Government to withdraw its quite disgraceful amendment and allow this simple Bill, which is about equality, pass to the next Stage and bring in the equality that the majority of the people in this country expect for our children.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:

“Dáil Éireann, while supporting the principle that change is needed in relation to the role of religion in school admissions, declines to give the Equal Participation in Schools Bill 2016 a Second Reading for the following reasons:

(a) Dáil Éireann last June agreed that the Labour Party’s Equal Status (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016, which aims to deal with this issue but does so in a very different way, would proceed to Second Stage in 12 months to allow sufficient time for scrutiny by the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills;

(b) the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills has recently held consultations on this issue and this Bill takes no account of the results of those consultations;

(c) the Bill, as drafted, would have a devastating impact on minority religious communities, including Protestant, Muslim and Jewish communities, and their ability to run primary schools in accordance with their ethos;

(d) the Bill, as drafted, would remove the ability of a school to maintain a ‘characteristic spirit’ whether its ethos is of a denominational, multidenominational or non-denominational nature - this would also remove the possibility of a school, for example, to have a particular linguistic ethos, as in the case of Gaelscoileanna, or a particular ethos in respect of special educational needs as in the case of a special school, and all of this would have far reaching consequences on our capacity to run an education system which depends, as it does currently, on patrons to run schools; and

(e) the Bill has a number of aspects which would appear to be unconstitutional.”.

I thank Deputy Coppinger and others for introducing the Bill. Unfortunately, I have to oppose it and cannot support it as outlined. I fully recognise the need for change in this area, which is something I have been determined to do from the very start of my Ministry.

I recognise, as does Deputy Coppinger, that in the recent census 10% of the population said they were of no religion, and in the age cohorts of those who are bringing their children to school the percentage is even higher. I recognise that one third of people are now getting married outside any denomination. There is clearly a need to change, and the question is what change we want to have. We need to promote more choice and diversity. I have pledged to introduce new types of schools that would be multidenominational or non-denominational and expand their number in order that there would be wider choice. I have taken a number of initiatives in that area to drive on that process.

I also believe that we need to change some features to which Deputies have referred. It is unfair that a parent of a child would find that his or her child who is of no denomination is passed over in favour of a child living miles away who comes into a school area and gets preference because of denominational reasons. It is not fair that parents should feel pressurised to baptise their child in order to get into a local school. We need to come up with changes that provide for a way in which parents can get access to local schools on a fairer basis. In order to achieve this change in a way that does not throw out everything good in our existing education system, we need to do that in consultation with people who are players in the system.

As we know, under the Constitution parents are the primary educators. I do not share the Deputies' belief that it is wrong that a person of a particular denomination should want to bring his or her child up in a faith and have him or her educated in a school that has a characteristic spirit reflecting that faith. It is not something that every parent wants, and that is what we have to recognise.

The Bill is designed to try to move us to a position whereby there would be just one type of school and does not recognise the characteristic spirits of different schools. It is very evident that there is a different characteristic spirit in an Educate Together school, a community national school or a Gaelscoil, which is welcome. The Bill would put a red line through all of those provisions. We need to recognise that this is an area where we need change, but we need change in consultation with others and to bring people with us.

In the admissions Bill that is before the House, every school must accept every child if it is not oversubscribed. Some 80% of our schools have to accept every child. They cannot decide that they will not accept a child because of his or her religion or for any other reason. It is only in the case of oversubscription that the possibility of a selection process arises. It is important not to portray our system as one which blocks out people on a universal basis because it does not but, as I said, it needs to change.

Deputy Coppinger said her Bill protects minority religions, but I would say the opposite is the case. If a person is a member of a minority religion and wants his or her child to be raised in the ethos of one's religion, the Bill kills that stone dead. That cannot happen under the Bill. There cannot be a Methodist, a Church of Ireland or a Presbyterian school because under the Bill such schools could not have a selection process that would allow them to select children from that ethos. I do not think that protects minorities. Rather, it discriminates against minority churches.

At the weekend I attended the conference of Church of Ireland managers and associations, which Deputy Coppinger did not attend. Representatives expressed concerns about what Deputy Coppinger deems wholly inadequate. They expressed much concern about how they would be protected under the various options that are available. There are very different views, and we have to accommodate them. It is good that we show respect to the very strong traditions within our community and recognise that the desire to have children raised in a tradition is a reasonable aspiration. We, as politicians, in recognising that parents are the primary educators should seek to support them as best we can, while not leaving others without.

That is the reason I have outlined a series of steps. As the House knows, the Labour Party proposed a Bill this time last year in which it advocated a process of catchment areas. A religious school could only give preference within the catchment area of the school. That is clearly one approach. A child from outside an area could not be given preference over local children. Another approach I have outlined is a quota system, whereby a school could only provide preference to a certain proportion of children of a particular ethos but other places would have to be offered on an open basis to children who wished to attend the school.

A third approach would be to consider the possibility of amending the equal status legislation and, in certain circumstances, allowing a minority church which found that the number of children of its ethos dropped below a certain threshold to reintroduce a preference for children of a religious denomination in order to protect the ethos of the school. It could have a school that would retain a characteristic ethos that represented a religious approach. They are fair and balanced approaches. The Oireachtas committee has held hearings in this area.

I fully respect that, at the end of the day, the Legislature is sovereign in this area and will have to decide on this matter. It is absolutely right for me, as Minister for Education and Skills, to hold a consultation process in order to allow stakeholders in education to have a chance to express their views.

Not only have I held that consultation and received submissions, which I appreciate, I am going to follow it up with a forum to tease out some of the thorny issues so that we will be in a position to come forward with legislation in circumstances where the House, in making a decision, will have had full access to the views of those who would be impacted by it.

Would a citizens' assembly be good?

The House could then make a decision in a way that is fair and respectful of all the various traditions here.

I wish to correct a few things Deputy Coppinger said. The reason the Catholic Church was successful in some of the competitions for new patrons was that it reflected parental choice, which was the criterion used in those selection processes. Where a religious patron was successful, it reflected parents' views. It was not a departmental view.

Catholic schools did not give out the non-Catholic information.

It is also worth reflecting on the mix of those schools. In every case at primary level, it was a non-denominational school under the patronage of either Educate Together, Foras Pátrúnachta, an ETB or other multidenominational patron. Each of the 31 new schools in the last couple of years was non-denominational. As such, there is no big conspiracy to prevent the emergence of choice. We are trying to promote choice.

Deputy Coppinger asked how we could improve provision for children who are not of the particular religious ethos of their school and ensure they are protected. This is an area in which, again, we are taking initiatives. It will have to be specified in the admissions Bill how schools will deal with pupils who want or whose parents want them to opt out conscientiously of religious instruction. They will have to set that out in their admissions policies. Moreover, that will be overseen under the parents and students charter with parents having the right to go to the Ombudsman for Children if they are not happy with the way in which they are being respected under that provision. Again, we are moving to introduce changes which will allow children who do not want to participate in the particular ethos to have their positions respected and dealt with.

I return to the basic reasoning. I cannot support a Bill which throws out all of the characteristic ethos and diversity of schools. What we need to do is create more and diverse schools and to deal with the issue of children who are not of the denomination of their local school to provide them with a fair chance of access. We are trying to restrict the use of religious grounds for choice either through catchment, nearest-school quotas or the amendment of the Equal Status Act in such a way as to also protect those schools.

I thank Solidarity-PBP for bringing forward this legislation. It is a welcome reminder of the need to do something about this issue. While I agree that there is an issue there that must be solved, Fianna Fáil cannot, unfortunately, support the Bill because, like a great deal of what Solidarity-PBP produces, it goes way too far. By going to the heart of the ethos of a school, whether it is religious or multidenominational, and abolishing it entirely by removing any characteristic spirit, Solidarity-PBP has gone way too far and will not get support in the House.

Everybody agrees that people should be allowed to go to their local schools. However, people also value the ethos of a school and are entitled to look to go to a school which reflects their own ethos. We do not have a system of State schools in this country. Rather, we have a system of patronage for which the State provides. There is a varied system of patronage and choice. There are Catholic schools and, despite all of the commentary, there are still parents who want to send their children to them. There are Protestant schools which are very highly valued by Protestant parents and communities not only for their educational provision, but also for their positive impact on those faith communities. There are multidenominational schools and there are Gaelscoileanna. I asked Deputy Micheál Martin about the idea of characteristic spirit this morning. There is no doubt that it is a much wider concept than that of religious spirit. It goes to the heart of what schools are about and whether they are renowned for a particular sporting activity or, perhaps, an artistic focus. Some schools are really good at engineering, technical subjects and science.

That is a bit spurious.

It is not spurious. The point is that it is not simply a question of religion, but one of ethos and spirit and what a school is known to prioritise. Some schools prioritise rugby. It was not so in my school, but there are others which do it.

They should not. They are not there to prioritise rugby.

Other schools prioritise Gaelic football. That is part of it. This is not simply about religious ethos. While I accept that there is an issue here which must be solved and while I cannot support the Solidarity-PBP Bill, neither can Fianna Fáil support the Minister's amendment for the simple reason that we have already had hearings in the Oireachtas committee and a public consultation. Fianna Fáil has set out its particular solution to this problem and it is about time the Minister put forward his. People have been spoken to and given their views. We have heard from everybody at this point, as has the Minister on foot of the public consultation. It is about time Fine Gael and the Government put forward their views and let the public know what their position is so that, together, the Oireachtas can come up with a solution.

Our focus in Fianna Fáil is very much on protecting minority faith schools. There is no doubt that if Solidarity-PBP's Bill were passed, minority faith schools and their particular ethos would cease to exist. They would be lucky to have any members of their own faiths attending given their extremely wide catchments. They draw in children from all over. If the Bill were passed, they would more than likely have to operate a list and that would inevitably restrict them to local people who might not have a particular link to the schools. It is very important to recognise the role of minority faith schools.

We must also recognise the entitlement of parents to send their children to Catholic schools if they so wish. The entitlement exists in the UK also and is not unique to Ireland. An Italian law has been upheld in the European Court of Human Rights which allows crucifixes to be displayed in schools. While that is not where I want to go, the point is that there is a religious aspect to education in many parts of the world. It is simply a fact. As the Minister pointed out in respect of one of the schools in Deputy Coppinger's constituency, it is something parents have sought. The role of the Oireachtas is to bring everyone together. The children of the nation are equal and the system is funded by the State. We must bring all competing interests together to ensure that children go to their local schools while also ensuring that the ethos of those schools is protected. We must ensure that parental choice exists.

A related reason as to why I want this dealt with and on foot of which I am not supporting the Bill is that there is too much focus on educational legislation. We need to settle these issues and get them off the table so that we can move on to focus on what is most important in education, namely, resources, getting more classrooms and reducing the teacher-pupil ratio. All of this legislation should be dealt with. Those provisions which need to be dealt with should be passed as soon as possible to allow us to move to the real focus, which is money to fund our schools.

Ireland has an increasingly secular population which has led to a demand for more diversity in schools. It is also a fact that 96% of our primary schools are under denominational patronage, which creates significant issues for children of minority faiths and none in the Irish education system. A 2015 article in The Irish Times set out that four out of five immigrant children were concentrated in 23% of our primary schools. ESRI research from 2012 found that 44% of primary schools did not have any ethnic minority pupils whereas in 9% of primary schools more than 20% of all students were from an ethnic minority background. Clearly, we have a problem.

It is unfair that those children who do not go to a faith school or whose parents do not want them to attend such schools receive lower priority when seeking to enrol in denominational schools. There is no doubt that multidenominational schools are more likely to be oversubscribed because they are so few in number. Primary school admissions policies must reflect the significant cultural, social and demographic changes the country has undergone and provide for increased diversity. There is an increasing mismatch between the current patronage arrangements and the wishes of parents.

I have to say schools have a right to defend their ethos, and this is explicitly protected by Article 44.5° of the Constitution. We have to allow the ability of minority faith schools to defend their ethos. If a school can choose its own language, and rightly so, in terms of Gaelscoileanna, then surely a school should have a right to choose its own ethos. The Fianna Fáil solution, and the only workable approach, is to use catchment areas as the basis for selection processes and, for oversubscribed schools, criteria based on locality and catchment area should be used. Catchment areas could be sized according to the popularity of the school ethos. For example, Presbyterian or Jewish schools would have a very wide catchment area for admissions as there are so few of them in the country. This would protect them, and rightly so, as minority denominational schools. With this approach we could remove the worst problems of the baptism barrier and provide the right to religious freedom and equality of education for all.

We must support choice and we must support diversity. At this point in time, as the Minister is aware, two Bills with regard to equal access to admissions are before the committee. We spent some time today at a committee meeting looking at these. The committee hopes to be in a position within the coming weeks to have a finalised report to recommend to the Minister.

What is the bottom line? It is that nobody should have to baptise his or her child to get into a school and that all children, regardless of religious denomination and outlook, should have access to a school in their local community. This should be extended to all children outside of their religious beliefs or none. Children with disabilities should also have the right to access a school in their own area. The treatment of non-Catholic parents and children in our education system is an urgent rights issue and needs to be dealt with.

I acknowledge the enormous work of all religious orders, priests, nuns and brothers. Without their support over the years in finance and time this country would be at a huge loss educationally. If they were to pull out entirely, the Department of Education and Skills would not be able to educate the young, particularly at primary level. I also acknowledge the great work of lay people on boards of management, who with very little resources over the years managed and ran very successful schools and continue to do so.

I spent 35 years as a primary school teacher and know the type of subsidisation required for the maintenance of school property and general upkeep when the capitation grants, then and now, were scarcely sufficient to meet the schools' insurance and heating costs. Unfortunately today, that shortfall in school funding tends to fall on the shoulders of proactive parents' associations to meet growing school needs.

Members need to know the Equal Status Act 2000 prohibits religious discrimination in educational services. However, the Act allows oversubscribed schools to enrol coreligionists in preference. We all know of the 20% of schools, mainly in Dublin, which are oversubscribed and which have led to this huge debate. These are the most active in employing admission processes and selection criteria based on religious background. I firmly believe this is wrong.

I suggest in the interim, when we are trying to get a solution to ensure everybody, religious or not, is treated equally, that the Department of Education and Skills could, through the inspectorate, seek that all enrolment policies embrace the conditions which we all know are needed to provide equality in religion and everything else throughout the school. This would be subject to the payment of the grant, and would be acceptable in terms of ensuring there was no discrimination.

Deleting section 7(3) of the Equal Status Act in the manner proposed would endanger minority faith schools, as has already been alluded to. This is why the section was included in the Act in the first place. Fianna Fáil's view is the selection process should be based, as others have said, on catchment area. In the case of oversubscribed schools, locality and catchment would have priority to a school place.

On the issue of faith formation and religious instruction, we do not support instruction after school hours and believe it would be unconstitutional. My experience from having taught in schools with a Catholic ethos for many years is that all religions and none were always accepted. I would venture to suggest that leaving aside the sacramental issues, to which any religion is entitled, the ethos in schools and the teaching of any form of faith or ethos was based on respect, with the children respecting themselves, their community, their family and their neighbours. This permeates civic, moral and religious beliefs in all faiths. I suggest to the Minister that he could take interim action and ensure all schools have a clear policy before grants and other such items would be paid.

No parent should have to baptise his or her child simply to get him or her into a school. All children, regardless of religious denomination or outlook, should have access to a school in their local community. Therefore, I will not support the Bill. It is unconstitutional and would discriminate against the right of schools to defend their ethos. About 20% of schools in the country are oversubscribed and they are the most active in employing admissions processes and selection criteria based on religious background. This is wrong. However, simply deleting section 7(3) of the Equal Status Act in the manner proposed is too simplistic and would endanger the right of minority faith schools to defend their ethos. At the time, the section was inserted with the intention of protecting the right of minority faith schools, in particular, to defend their ethos.

Our approach is constructive and would not infringe on the rights or identity of minority faith schools. Selection processes should be based on catchment area, where children from the catchment area get preferential access. I favour the introduction of selection criteria for oversubscribed schools, based on locality and catchment area, whereby children living in newly-designated school catchment areas would be prioritised. However, I do not believe that schools should be able to give admission to children of their own denominational background from outside their catchment area in preference to children of a different denomination from inside their catchment area.

Catchment areas could be sized according to the availability of schools of different ethos. This would mean that catchment areas could be sized according to the popularity of the school's ethos. For example, Presbyterian schools would have an extremely wide catchment for admissions as there are so few of these schools in the country. This would protect them as minority denominational schools. This would mean that a situation could not occur where a child from outside an area could be considered for a school place before a child from the local area, even if the local child is not of the denominated belief.

In addition, a new schools admissions appeals body should be established in the Department of Education and Skills to which parents who suspect their child has been discriminated against during the admissions process of a school would have recourse for appeal and investigation. There are many minority schools in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. They include Bailieborough model national school, Cabra Central national school in Kingscourt and Monaghan model school, which have all expressed serious concerns because removing section 7(3) of the Equal Status Act would provide absolutely no protection for minority denominational schools. Ultimately, the reason for the insertion of section 7(3) in the first place was explicitly to provide equal status to protect schools of minority ethos. What Solidarity-PBP proposes would mean obliterating this section and would completely disregard all of the schools' concerns.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle as ucht an deis chun cainte ar an topaic seo anocht. Tá Sinn Féin ag tacú leis an mBille seo. Tá sé leagtha amach i bhforógra mo pháirtí go bhfuilimid i gcoinne aon chineál idirdhealaithe. Aithníonn an páirtí gur cheart bunúsach é ceart oideachais. Aithníonn an páirtí go bhfuil an tromlach de scoileanna sa tír seo ag déanamh a seacht ndícheall le bheith cothrom ina bpolasaí iontrálacha. Tá sé soiléir go mbaineann an topaic de idirdhealú reiligiúnda le scoileanna atá lán, go háirithe i gceantair uirbeacha. De réir tuairisce a d'fhoilsíodh in 2012 ón bhForam Pátrúnachta a bhaineann leis an mbunrannóg, tá 96% de bhunscoileanna faoi thionchar pátrúnachta.

The increasing diversity of our population has led to increased demands for an education system that is reflective of all trends within our society and that ensures equal treatment of all children. The Equal Status Act 2000 states that schools can refuse admission to a student on the basis that it is necessary to maintain the ethos of the school. Emerging evidence shows that when a school is oversubscribed, as approximately 20% of all schools in Ireland are, the religion of the child seeking admission to school can be a determining factor as to whether the child is admitted.

This situation has been highlighted by several representative groups and bodies such as the Teachers Union of Ireland, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, the Ombudsman for Children and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. All of them have criticised the fact that the Equal Status Act 2000 gives schools considerable scope to refuse admission or exclude and have called for a provision to be amended or repealed in order to fulfil the rights of the child.

Sinn Féin believes that the right of a child to receive an education within reasonable conditions and without discrimination must be the paramount consideration in determining our approach to this issue, and it must be an approach that is respectful of all views because this is a contentious issue and we have to be respectful.

Sinn Féin believes in and strives to achieve an inclusive Ireland where all cultural and religious traditions are valued and respected. We believe that an inclusive education system where children learn about different faiths, ethics, morals and religions and grow in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect is the key cornerstone in achieving this type of society. We believe it is important to send out a clear message that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated and that all children should be treated equally in terms of access to education. Sinn Féin, therefore, will be supporting this Bill and we encourage the Government to act on this issue and to ensure that full equality for all children can be achieved.

The Minister spoke earlier about the need to be fair to children, parents, minority faiths and everybody. From what I can gather, and I had some experience of this as a parent, it is not easy in some instances if one is not a Roman Catholic to be able to have one's child educated in a way that will suit one. This Bill is only about fairness and the elimination of discrimination and I thank Solidarity-PBP for bringing it forward and giving us the opportunity to have the debate because there seems to be a significant amount of agreement among us. We all agree that discrimination is wrong but it happens on a daily basis, and it is facilitated by this Government. It will happen to children next September. The only fair way to do this is to allow parents who wish their children to be involved in faith formation, ceremonies and all that goes along with that to be facilitated to do that in their own time, outside of what we can all agree are the core activities of school, not rugby but a lot of learning.

In 2011, the UN Universal Periodic Review recommended that Ireland eliminate discrimination in schools on religious grounds. It is a mystery to me why that has not been done, yet in this debate this evening we are all saying that there should be no discrimination in our schools. It is not an urban-rural issue; it happens throughout the country. If we are all agreed that there should be no discrimination in our schools, should we not do the decent thing and support legislation which seeks to eliminate discrimination in all of its forms from our schools and allow our children get on with the business of going to school to learn and to grow and allow those people who so choose to engage in faith formation and all that goes along with that outside core school hours?

There needs to be a change to ensure that religious instruction and faith formation classes take place outside core hours. It would allow an opportunity, as it does in multidenominational schools, for children to learn about all religions. That is probably a very good idea but without doing so within a faith formation setting.

I had personal experience of this because my daughter was educated in a multidenominational school. While there was a certain amount of discussion around religion, it was about all religions, and no child in that classroom felt left out. No child sat in the classroom while the other children engaged in an activity that was not part of their life or their family, and no child was discriminated against. If there is broad agreement that there should be no discrimination in our school system, there should be broad agreement in support of this legislation.

I support the Bill brought forward by Solidarity-PBP. It is a very important Bill, and I have spoken on this issue a number of times in the Dáil in the past few years.

In terms of the consultation process, the Minister has had 11 consultations and there are to be another four, but that is not dealing with the issue we are facing as a society. A recent report in The Irish Times suggested that in that consultation process some political parties and larger patron bodies have favoured a catchment area rule. A catchment area rule is not a resolution to the baptism barrier issue. It would still allow State funded schools to give preference to children of a particular religion over others. It is clearly a form of discrimination that has no place in a modern democracy. It prioritises the protection of a patron's ethos over a child's right to equal access to education. It potentially would be an administrative nightmare for the Department and has the real possibility of taking years to finalise.

I want to make a point on which other Deputies have spoken. Ireland is fairly unique in Europe from the point of view that 96% of our schools are faith schools, with almost 90% under the patronage of the Catholic Church. Parents are helpless in the face of an education system that makes it legally permissible to discriminate in order for a school to protect its own ethos. This is a situation that shames us as a nation. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the European Commissioner for Human Rights, Ireland's rapporteur on child protection, the Ombudsman for Children and the Irish Human Rights Commission have called for reform of this system. They have called on the Government to prohibit the use of religious-based admission policies in State funded schools in order to protect the right to religious freedom and equality, so it is not a question of fairness. It is a question of human rights. This is the issue we, as legislators, must take on board in this Dáil.

Recently published census figures show that those selecting "No Religion" is by far the largest growing segment of Irish society. The figure has risen from 269,820 in 2011 to 468,000 in 2016. In large parts of the country, people have no option but to send their children to local State funded schools as there is no real alternative for them, and those State schools can legally turn away those children. It is five years since the Government first considered tackling this issue and the fact that we are where we are now is shameful.

There was a very good legal opinion piece done recently by Michael Lynn, senior counsel, who I have met previously. The Minister would do well to read it.

I do not know whether the Minister has read it. Paragraph 4.2 of the opinion piece states:

While legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, there is no constitutional impediment to the State requiring that all publicly funded schools cease discriminating on the grounds of religion in their admissions policies. Thus, there are no 'thorny constitutional issues' at play in this context.

The Bill requires that the faith of parents and their children be dealt with after school hours. The Minister and, I am sure, the Solidarity-PBP Deputies, are correct that there should be no religious ethos in schools once they are funded publicly by the taxpayer. Everybody should have an equal education. There should not be privilege on the basis of religion or the ethos of a school, whether it be a rugby ethos or any other. Every child should have the same education through State-funded schools and if one wants to practise anything afterwards outside school hours, it may be organised within the schools and dealt with in that way.

People in this country are increasingly becoming aware of issues of inequality in areas where the Catholic Church traditionally played a dominant role. Particular examples concern the marriage equality referendum, the children's rights referendum and, most recently, the national conversation starting on the eighth amendment. What people are trying to say is that we no longer want an unhealthy, unchecked relationship between church and State but, rather, a country in which the diversity of people of beliefs and faiths and none is fostered and equality between citizens is paramount. Somehow, however, the unchecked relationship between church and State schools remains strong in our education system, primarily because the Government seems intent on protecting its influence by failing to amend existing legislation, thereby preserving the baptism barrier and affording the church special protection when it comes to the role that religions play in our schools.

I want to use this opportunity to highlight a recent development that represents the extent of how unchecked religious influence truly is in our education system and why we need to address this. It has come to my attention that teachers in parts of the country are being inspected by lay personnel hired by dioceses to monitor the implementation of the Grow in Love programme, designed and supported by the Catholic Church. As the House may be aware, the programme is a new religious education programme for Catholic schools rolled out in September 2015 and which will expand to third and fourth classes this September and fifth and sixth classes in September of next year. Dioceses across Ireland developed the programme and currently support its rolling out, providing teachers with manuals, teaching kits, animated videos and online materials, all of a religious nature. This sphere of influence has been growing, however, and now involves the procuring of so-called diocesan directors and advisers hired by the church to support the work during religious education in Catholic primary schools. Primary schoolteachers across Ireland have been frequented by such diocesan advisers on the school grounds themselves during class hours, where they are monitored and evaluated on their teaching of the Grow in Love programme.

I have some very basic questions with regard to the visits of diocesan staff to school campuses in the presence of children during school hours. First, is the Minister aware this is going on? If so, does he know how frequent these visits are? Does he have a list of the people carrying out these inspections? What level of communication do diocesan advisers and directors have with the Department of Education and Skills, if any? Does the Minister have specific guidelines or a code of conduct for visitors on school grounds who are not employees of the Department of Education and Skills? More fundamentally, are the directors verified by the Department? Are parents made aware of the presence of these advisers visiting their child's school? If so, how? Let us be honest: if any of these visits are going unchecked by the Department, we need to have another conversation about the relationship between church and State. So long as religious influence goes unchecked in our schools, the problem of inequality in our education system will continue to grow.

We are elected here to represent all of the people. While I am here, I will always strive to do that fairly. I am a Catholic and I am not ashamed to say that. I believe, however, that all people of other religious views are entitled to those views. I respect their views but I want to be respected, too. Since I came here, however, there has been a continuous onslaught against the Catholic religion and not against any other religion. While I am not saying there should be an attack on any other religion, this racket needs to be curtailed and stopped. Fair play needs to be given to the people we are representing because, when one is hitting at the Catholic religion, one is hitting at an awful lot of people.

The proposal in this Bill is to get rid of the Catholic ethos in all schools. The reason being given is that children have to be baptised before they are admitted to school. In the county of Kerry, from where I come, I have not had one complaint about that from parents, teachers or others. We are glad to have many families, including children, from many other parts of the world, especially in Killarney and Tralee. We have not had one complaint. Neither I nor any other member of our outfit has had one complaint to the effect that children were being deprived of a place or could not gain access to a school because of their not having been baptised in the Catholic religion.

I know there have been many unsavoury incidents in schools in the past. Nuns and brothers were found to be responsible. I would never condone that. The State, however, had a role to play also. In those times, there was a Minister for Education and a Department of Education. They do not seem to get the same blame at all as the people who were involved. In every outfit, one had a boss, and the Minister for Education and the Department in those times were equally responsible for letting those things happen.

I take this opportunity, however, to note that we have to appreciate brothers and nuns who played a very positive role in the education of the people of this country in the past and who do so even in the present. I went to the Presentation convent in Kenmare for a few years and I really appreciate and recognise the great work that was done there by the Poor Clare nuns. I will always think of them and thank them for the time and effort they devoted to all of the children. They treated all of the children fairly and equally.

Many parents hold the Catholic religion very close to their hearts. They still want their children brought up in the Catholic ethos and they make no apology for asking for this or doing it. I recognise the great work being done by management and teachers in all the schools in Killarney, Tralee, Castleisland, Kenmare, Killorglin, Caherciveen and all the rural schools around the county.

I take this opportunity to mention one school, in Tahilla, where there are only about 20 children. Thirteen of them are of 13 different nationalities and, I believe, they may have 13 different religious views. They are all being accommodated and treated fairly and equally in that school and have been for many years. That part of the country attracts people from many different countries because of its natural beauty and views. Many important people have come to live there and sent their children to the local schools. We appreciate the attention the teachers and management have given to those families all the time.

I raised with the Minister a problem in Kerry in regard to access to schools. Since the last Government and the current one came into office, they have deprived many children in rural communities of the opportunity of attending their own local school.

There are different places like Cordal, Knocknagoshel, Brosna, Kilgarvan, Blackwater, Sneem, Tahilla, Annascaul and Lispole in north Kerry. They are being deprived of the opportunity to go to the local school their parents went to because the Government took away the school transport. School transport was promised when the outlying schools in the hills and the valleys closed. An undertaking was given by the Department in 1956 that children would always be transported free of charge to the local central school. I remind the Minister that is not happening. Children in Scartaglin parish who are entitled to go to Scartaglin school have to go to another school because free school transport is not available to take them to the school in their own parish which happens to be further away than a school in another parish. They find themselves going to school in the other parish. I ask the Minister and the Government to address that issue because a word is a word and that word was given as far back as 1956 that children from those areas would be taken to their local school free of charge. The Government has reneged on that and I am sorry about that because it has hurt many families.

Tá an Comhaontas Glas sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille. The Bill seeks to tackle the issue of the baptism barrier in our schools and the place of religion in our schools. This is not the first time we have dealt with this issue in this House and not the first time I have had the opportunity to contribute on it. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills is currently examining two Bills - the Government's Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 and the Labour Party's Equal Status (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016. Neither Bill deals adequately with the issues created by the baptism barrier. I welcome Deputy Coppinger's Bill today because it seizes much more effectively on an opportunity to remove the baptism barrier from our schools. This is an issue the Minister in his Bill has skirted around entirely and which the Labour Party has sought only to water down instead of removing in its Bill.

Schools should reflect the modern diversity of families and communities. No State-funded school should be able to discriminate for or against a child on the basis of his or her religion. Our country is home to a wide diversity of people with a wide diversity of faiths. It is essential that our schools be a place where all are welcomed, whether they are of any faith or none. We cannot continue with a system where taxpayers' money is funding discrimination in our schools. I welcome the provisions in this Bill which seek to remove religious instruction from the school day. Not alone is this necessary for equality in the classroom, but it shifts the onus onto parents and religious leaders for the education of their children in their faith. Our Constitution recognises parents as the primary educator of children, and it is right that they should take on the responsibility of educating their children in their faith if they so wish. It is, however, important that we note the contribution made by the religious to the education of our children and our young people down through the generations. For many years they were the only people willing to take on the burden of education for the children of Ireland and abroad, and many of us owe our education to schools founded and run by the religious.

As legislators, however, we must do all in our power to protect our children from becoming isolated and insulated, and we cannot risk depriving our children of the rich lasting experience of encountering children who come from different cultures, different points of view or different religious beliefs. No child should be denied a friend because he or she prays in a different way or does not pray at all. A child who cannot interact with the wonderful diversity of our country and our world to the fullest extent is a child whose childhood has not been as rich as it ought to be. It is imperative we embrace our diversity as a nation. Our children are growing up in worrying times, facing the challenges of the far right and populists preaching intolerance and hate for those who are "other" - other nationalities, other races, other genders, other sexual orientations and other religions. However, children simply do not see these differences; they see only other children. We cannot let religious division keep some children apart from others. It is in our diversity that our children learn the values of tolerance and respect and love for others, regardless of religion or any other difference.

Our responsibility is to show those who would hate and divide that we celebrate our diversity. We do not just tolerate diversity, but we embrace it and become enriched by it. We have a State and a society based on a Constitution that guarantees the equality of all, and discrimination on the grounds of religion can be no part of that. Religious discrimination has no place in a modern society. All schools in receipt of State funding should be fair, transparent, and inclusive. The Green Party will support the Bill because discrimination on the basis of religion would not be tolerated in any other walk of life, and the education system should be no different.

I commend Deputy Coppinger on bringing the Bill forward. This is a worthwhile debate to address religious discrimination in State schools. The subtext to the debate is the power of the Catholic Church and its iron grip on society. Thankfully, that grip has been dramatically loosened over the past 20 years, but it needs to be loosened much further. I was brought up a Catholic but I am not a Catholic anymore. A majority of our people probably still recognise themselves as a Catholic but no Catholic could ever defend what the Catholic Church did to this country, including committing some of the most despicable acts against people.

I would like to highlight a relevant case relating to school admissions. I was contacted by a family from Dublin earlier to highlight the situation they are facing, which is incredible. They live next door to a primary school but their child cannot go to the school because he is not Catholic. I will quote the reasons the child cannot get a place in the school under the heading, "Procedures for offering places":

In the event of there being more applicants than places available, the following criteria will apply:

1. Sisters and brothers of children who are currently enrolled in the school.

2. Catholic children who are resident within the parish boundary of Our Lady of the Rosary, Harold's Cross, Dublin 6.

3. Children who attended the Montessori facility.

4. Catholic children resident in the parish of Mount Argus.

5. Children of other faiths and non-resident in the parishes of Harold's Cross and Mount Argus in that order.

6. The order in which names are recorded in the registration book.

The child qualifies under the fifth procedure. As a young child, he cannot go to a school of his peers in his neighbourhood. The family of that child is paying tax, which funds that school, and it is incredible that he cannot go to the school because he is not a Catholic.

If that child was a different colour - if he was black - it would be discrimination. I find it incredible that in the 21st century, this sort of thing can go on. Members eulogise about the Constitution in this Dáil and its righteousness. The Constitution says to treat all children equally, but those words are very hollow when it comes to this child.

I thank Deputies for their contributions this evening. This is an important and complex issue.

The basic aim of the Government is to use our economic success to create a fair and compassionate society and ultimately to make life a little easier for people. A key part of this is making it easier for parents and children to more easily access local schools that reflect their values and needs. We all recognise that we need to deal with the situation whereby some religious schools, when oversubscribed, admit children of their own religion from some distance away ahead of children of other religions or no religion who live close by. It is important to remember that only 20% of schools are oversubscribed and therefore the vast majority of schools are unaffected by this issue. We are taking two major steps to make it easier for parents and children to more easily access schools.

First, the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016 has been published. It passed Second Stage on 17 November and is due to proceed to Committee Stage shortly. This Bill will reform the process of school admissions, including the banning of waiting lists and admission fees. It will ensure that where a school is not oversubscribed, it must admit all students who apply and will require more information and consultation for parents throughout the process.

Second, a comprehensive public consultation process on the role of religion in school admissions has commenced. The first stage of the consultation process for submitting written submissions has recently finished and submissions are being collated and examined. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has also announced that the second stage of the process will involve a half-day forum on this matter to be held at the end of the month. The forum seeks to find a solution to address this issue, while respecting the desire of many parents to send their children to denominated schools. We must also ensure that minority religious groups continue to run schools which are of their own ethos.

Separately, the Government agreed last June that the Labour Party's Equal Status (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 would proceed to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills for scrutiny and would not come before the Dáil for a Second Stage hearing before 28 June 2017 to facilitate this. It is clear from the debate this evening that there is a broad consensus that children should have access to their local schools. This is particularly important at primary level. It is also clear from the discussion on this matter that the amendments proposed in this Equal Participation in Schools Bill involve significant legal and constitutional issues. Simply repealing section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act is not the solution. It would have significant implications for minority religious communities, including Protestant, Muslim and Jewish communities, and their ability to run primary schools in accordance with their ethos. This will not address the complex legal, constitutional and operational elements that a solution requires.

The Bill also proposes to remove references in the Education Act 1998 to the characteristic spirit of a school and provides that religious instruction and faith formation classes should take place after school hours. While the intention of the Bill may be to remove religious ethos, proposed removal of a concept of characteristic spirit will affect all schools, for example, in respect of the existing objectives of Irish language schools and special schools, as well as the secular approach of Educate Together schools. This proposal appears to have significant implications for the current governance of the school system and the role and functions of school patrons and boards, particularly those with a religious ethos.

The advisory group to the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector acknowledged that denominational religious education and sacramental preparation are long-established features of the primary system and are likely to continue to be so. The forum report did not recommend that religious instruction be removed from the school day. The advisory group also put forward a number of practical suggestions on timetabling of religious education to facilitate those pupils whose parents want them to opt out of denominational religious education in primary schools. This includes the use of flexible timetabling to allow children who opt out to participate in another class and the timetabling of denominational religious education at the beginning or end of the school day to facilitate parents who wish to remove a pupil from the school during denominational religious education.

The Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016, which is due to proceed to Committee Stage shortly, includes a specific requirement that school enrolment policies must include details of a school's arrangement for any students who do not wish to attend religious instruction. This is an important measure which will help to ensure transparency from the outset as to how schools will uphold the rights of parents in this regard. The Attorney General has also advised that she considers that a number of potential significant legal and constitutional issues arise for consideration with regard to the proposed amendments in this Bill. We need to ensure that any proposals in this area strike a balanced and measured approach in respect of competing rights and do not give rise to unintended consequences that create an adverse impact on the rights of parents to send their children to denominational schools of their choice, including schools of minority denominations.

I thank the Solidarity-PBP party for its proposal and consider that following the completion of a consultation process on the role of religion in schools admissions and consideration by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills of the Labour Party's Bill, we will be better positioned to identify the best way forward that captures the complex legal, constitutional and operational elements in this area.

I was born in the United States of America and I went to school there for eight years. Every morning, we had to stand, face the flag, place our hands on our hearts, and sing "O say can you see". Children going to school in England at the time would have been taught in school that once upon a time, the sun never set on the British Empire, that Britain was the workshop of the world. Every ruling class needs an ideology to justify its rule. The gombeen men who passed themselves off as a ruling class and took over the control of the State in 1922 and 1923 in the midst of a counter-revolution leaned heavily on the Roman Catholic Church to provide it with an ideology to justify its rule. Control of the schools was handed over to the brothers and the nuns and leaving aside socialist or communist ideas among young people, even liberal or questioning ideas were beaten out of the heads of young people with the cane and the ruler. Times have passed and changed since then but the rulers of this society today - the likes of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - are slow to let go of that prop that has been so useful for them down through the years, to separate church and State and to end religious control and domination of the State-funded school system.

What is the word that has been used more than any other in the debate tonight? It is probably "in" or "the" or "or" but if one takes those little words out of it, the word is "ethos". Let us talk about ethos. In 1982, Ms Eileen Flynn was sacked from her job in the Holy Faith primary school in New Ross because she was pregnant and had started a family with a man who was married to someone else. The Employment Appeals Tribunal upheld the decision of the nuns and said that the sacking was in keeping with the Catholic ethos of the school. This ruling has never been overturned in a society the Minister of State described as a republic. That was 30 years ago. What happens in the schools today? We had a press conference yesterday to advertise and promote this Bill. We had a young school student who recounted her experience as a primary school student of asking the teacher "what about gay people?" The reply was "We won't talk about that." She went to secondary school. A Catholic group was invited into the school to give a talk about these issues. She asked "What about gay people?" She was referred to an outside organisation, BeLonGTo, and was told that it was not going to be discussed in the school. That is the reality of what ethos means. It is a scandal that in the year 2017, in a society that describes itself as a republic, we do not have appropriate sex education for our young people, boys and girls, in schools. We do not have sex education which caters for the LGBT community in schools that are funded by their parents, the taxpayers.

Is this solely and exclusively because of religious ethos? It is not. There are the failings of politicians, of the State, of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Is religious ethos a major factor in this? Absolutely, it is. The Government is failing tens of thousands of young people there. According to a recent survey, 8% of young people indicated that they were LGBT. That would represent tens of thousands of school students. Let us look at transgender young people. The Trans Youth Forum report of 2015 found that 32% of trans young people stated that the education institute they had attended did not respect their gender identity.

A mere 25% of them found that their gender had been acknowledged in school. Just 9% could participate in sport and 91% could not according to their chosen gender. It is an absolute disgrace, and that is apart from the problems that those young trans people face in terms of school trips, sports teams, uniforms, bathroom facilities in school, bullying and so on and so forth. That is down to ethos.

I quote the following experience of one parent:

As foreigners and parents of Irish children living in Ireland, we are the most affected with the educational system in Ireland which is based on catholic ethos and spirit, some of the Muslim students and their parents in our community, experienced difficulties in Catholic’s primary and secondary schools, some of the students were forced to attended mass in the churches and to participate in religion classes, which is contrary to their belief and conscience, consequently they felt discriminated against and that their right as human was violated. Some of them were expelled and some were asked to leave, many families and students from other faiths are suffering in silence.

That is from a submission from a Muslim parent to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in recent years. It is an example of the situation in the major cities of this country. That is what the Minister stands over and describes as a republic. It is an absolute disgrace in reality.

The fact is the people are a million miles ahead of the Minister on these issues. Findings from a poll commissioned by Equate asked questions of members of the public. A total of 72% of respondents agreed that the law should be changed in order that baptism can no longer be a requirement for school admission to State-funded schools. They are a million miles ahead of the Government. Some 24% of people said that they personally would not have baptised their child if it was not needed to gain entry to the school. A total of 71% agreed that the time had come for church bodies to have less influence over our local schools. That is miles ahead of the Government.

The reality is this Bill, far from being incredibly far-reaching or radical, is actually very modest. It does not take the ownership of schools out of the hands of religious institutions. It merely applies some basic democratic conditions to the situation. It allows for a situation in which a board of management can state what it wants for a school and does not have to be bound by the ethos imposed upon it by the church organisation that runs the school. I do not see any reason parents who send their children to Gaelscoileanna would want to overthrow that ethos in those schools. That is a red herring. It is perhaps not quite as ridiculous as the points made about rugby-playing schools.

It is also a modest proposal in the sense that it allows for religious education and instruction within school buildings. The terrible atheists from the benches on this side of the House are proposing that school buildings might be allowed for religious education and instruction, but on two conditions: that it is not within the core hours of the school when it is funded by the taxpayer but organised after hours; and that the children who do not want to participate in it are not left twiddling their thumbs at the back of the class or, as Deputy Coppinger explained, left to play with the crayon they are given by the school authorities, but rather are provided with a real and genuine alternative in terms of what would be done with their time.

The big two capitalist parties in this House, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have a real problem on their hands now. The mood in society is changing. There is a new emerging majority. Women and young people are central to it and many progressive thinking men are part of it as well. They are coming to the position that we need to separate the church from the State in this country. On abortion, the Government is pointing in the opposite direction. On prayers in this House, the Government is pointing in the opposite direction. On the national maternity hospital, the Government is pointing in the opposite direction. In terms of how schools are run, the Government is pointing in the opposite direction. It is pointing in the wrong direction. There is an emerging majority that is looking for something very different. If the Minister is not prepared in a genuine and wholehearted way to cater for and satisfy that demand, he will be bypassed as well.

Cuireann sé sin deireadh leis an díospóireacht ar an Dara Céim den Bhille um Rannphairtíocht Chomhionnan i Scoileanna 2016.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 18 May 2017.

On a point of order, can the Government amend a Bill?

Of course it can.

The Government can amend a Bill, yes.