As I was saying earlier, putting somebody’s religious or moral view into the Constitution, into the law or allowing it to dictate the behaviour and ethos of what should be a public service is not acceptable any longer in 21st century Ireland. I do not think it ever was. The “Yes” vote we saw at the weekend was part of a tide of public opinion welling up, an earthquake as some described it, against that sort of Ireland, which has not served us well. It has not served women well and, in this case, it has not and is not serving the education of our children well. We have had some significant evidence of this. The “Yes” vote was about people saying that they did not want to be dictated to by the church or the State, having a particular moral view imposed on them. We think people should be allowed to make up their own minds about those things, when it comes to women, pregnancy and so on.
One sees further evidence of the need to make this shift, even with the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Zappone, today, about allowing what should be a State agency to be controlled by religious institutions, in this case St. Patrick’s Guild and the Sisters of Charity. I just heard the announcement today. Fair play to the Minister, Deputy Zappone, for contacting Deputies but I do not know if I am one of those children because St. Patrick’s Guild was the adoption agency that adopted me and I was adopted during those years. I do not know whether I was properly registered. I am lucky because my biological parent found me but had difficulty in doing so. There are people who may not know that they are adopted. This is unbelievable. That is all because we allowed things that should have been public services to be outsourced to particular religious bodies with a particular ethos and attitude. That very seriously impacted on the lives of real people and it is still impacting on them.
This cannot go on. It is still going on the area of education and the Minister intends, notwithstanding some moves to improve matters in this Bill, to allow that discrimination against people who do not share a particular religious ethos – the Catholic ethos in most cases – to be discriminated against if it impacts on the ethos of the school. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle should not get me wrong, as I think people are entitled to their religious views. They are entitled to express them and to associate with regard to those ideas. I would fight to the death for people’s right to have freedom of religious expression but we are talking about schools, publicly funded for the most part, although it does not matter what sort of school it is. Any school that is delivering the curriculum should not have a particular morality or religious view which is imposed on people who do not share that view. It should not be allowed to persist. The school should not decide to have any right to discriminate on admission to that school on the basis of people sharing or not sharing that religious ethos. It is just not acceptable. We have had a clear statement over the weekend and have evidence all the time that that should not continue and people do not want it to continue. It is in that spirit that these amendments are proposed.
Whatever one may have thought last week, the week before, or the week before that, something has changed over the weekend and the Government should reconsider. To my mind, it is just a no-brainer. The baptism barrier has to go and that means removing the ridiculous situation where the Equal Status Act says one will not be guilty of discrimination if one is discriminating. How Irish is that? We are not discriminating when we are discriminating because we are in a school that has a particular ethos. It is Orwellian doublethink and the consequence is that it allows that discrimination to persist. In many cases where schools are not oversubscribed, it is not an issue, and I fully accept that it is not an issue. When there are places, most schools will take kids from whatever background. It can still persist if the school is oversubscribed and says that, by not allowing in a child of the same ethos as the ethos of the school and not discriminating in favour of that child, it would impact on the school’s right to maintain that ethos.
That is still discrimination and I do not think it is acceptable.
I have another amendment on religious instruction in schools which I will come to later and the same point pertains there. I have no problem with schools being used after school hours for religious instruction for people who share a particular religious view but I do not believe it is right that during school hours we have a particular religious view, which children have to either sit through even though they may not share it or they have to leave and are therefore made to feel different from everybody else. That is not right. For the school to have to say, following this legislation, that it will make other arrangements and state what they are is still not good enough. A distinction should not be made for children whereby a child is made to feel different because we have a particular set of values and ethos and because someone does not share it therefore he or she will be treated differently. That is discrimination. It is not right. It is not fair on children and it should not be allowed to persist. For those reasons, the Government should take my amendments seriously.
There are other aspects to the separation of church and State in education. In passing I will again mention Clonkeen College, but the issue does not only concern Clonkeen College where the Christian Brothers are flogging off school facilities to pay their historical debts over child abuse. I got a lengthy email from Waterford today where people are saying exactly the same thing. The Sisters of Charity are flogging off real estate on school lands essentially to look after their religious order. The writer of the email asks why the hell the State does not step in and take over the schools and that from now on schools will be non-religious as they are being divested from religious control and that we will have a fair system which does not discriminate on the basis of religious ethos. We would then have a system where anyone who is in a catchment area would be taken by a school on a first-come, first-served basis regardless of his or her religious views or background or lack thereof or if he or she is of a minority religion. The time has come for change. There is no defence for fudging on this and for half-hearted measures.