We stand for two things - equal access to schools and equal respect within them. Ms Lennon will touch on the issue of respect, while I will deal with issue of access. This will probably address the various questions raised, all of which I will try to address in what I have to say.
First, the rights of minority religions have arisen as a defence of the status quo. The Islamic religion was mentioned as a possible example. That is interesting in that there are two Islamic schools in the country, both of which are located in Dublin. I do not agree that it is good to prioritise access and to have children from only one background attending a school. Fundamentally that is not good. Regardless, the last census showed that in 2011 there were approximately 50,000 Muslims in the country. Clearly, if one happens to live near the Muslim schools, one can benefit from prioritised access, but if one lives elsewhere, one will still be at the bottom of the list according to the enrolment policy. Therefore, it does not benefit minority religions. It certainly does not benefit the vast majority of religions that do not have any school.
Approximately 90% of primary schools are Catholic. They also apply a discriminatory enrolment policy. Accordingly, there is not a strong argument that this benefits minority religions in any way.
The balancing of competing rights arises quite a lot in the Constitution. It contains the right to free primary education, freedom from discrimination and freedom of practice of religion. These are all rights from which individual citizens benefit. On the other hand, there is a competing right where there is an institutional right to run schools in a particular way under the freedom of religion for institutions. The difficulty is that we have strong rights for access to education and freedom from discrimination for individuals but the State - the Government - still favours the rights of institutions as somehow superior, solely on the right to freedom of religion. Last year, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, when Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality and quoted the Constitution. He stated, "Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes". This is put forward as a defence of the current status quo. One needs to see schools as institutions for religious or charitable purposes for that to make sense. Most of us agree that a school is an institution for education, not for religious or charitable purposes. It seems to be a particularly skewed reading of the Constitution to see this as somehow benefitting institutions as opposed to individuals. We have senior counsel opinion from Michael Lynn supporting this. EQUATE also has constitutional experts who support this point. The Government appears to depend on the opinion of the Attorney General. This is not a particularly sensitive issue. I do not see why it cannot be published so we can at least see what the defence is for doing nothing. Essentially, nothing is being done.
Education Equality proposes very much what EQUATE proposes, namely, an amendment to the Equal Status Act to allow free full access to local schools. The Chair referred to the Labour Party's Equal Status (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016. It is important to knock that on the head. There are aspects of the Bill which are good. In terms of school access, however, it is not good legislation. Schools can prioritise children of the patron's religion from virtually anywhere in the country ahead of a child who happens to live next door to the school. The Labour Party's Bill proposes that children from outside a catchment area will no longer be prioritised on the basis of religion but that those within it still will be. Take the example of two children who live next door, either side of the school. If one child is not of the patron's religion, under Labour's Bill, he or she will still not have equal access. The Labour Party's Bill moves children from third-class citizens to second-class citizens. That is not sufficient when we are talking about human rights.
We need to go back to the drawing board and ensure we just have equal access. What concerns me about the Labour Party's Bill is that if it were successful, it might be deemed an incremental success, might knock things on the head for 15 years and be seen as some sort of compromise. My concern is that we would have second-class citizenship of our children cast in stone for future generations.
Senator Warfield referred to the numbers affected. Numbers or percentages are not particularly relevant when we are dealing with human rights. When we are dealing with racial or any other type of discrimination, it is important we uphold everybody's rights. It was stated earlier that enrolment criteria only kick in with oversubscription. The Department's numbers indicate that 20% of schools are oversubscribed. One in five schools will prioritise on the basis of enrolment criteria, which, typically, are based on religion. Besides that, a parent will never know from year to year whether their local school will be oversubscribed. The safest bet is always to baptise as one will be prioritised on that basis. The marriage rate is interesting when people are free to choose the type of ceremony they undergo. In 1995, 95% of marriage ceremonies were Catholic and 5% were non-religious. In 2015, 56% of marriage ceremonies were Catholic and 33% non-religious. When people are free to decide for themselves and there is no State-imposed advantage, these are the type of decisions people make. We suggest that the baptism barrier and the advantage one gets from baptising a child is completely inappropriate.