Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill 2015: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I intend to share time with Deputies Ruth Coppinger, Thomas Pringle and Catherine Murphy.

It is now three and a half weeks since the tremendous result in the marriage equality referendum, which was heralded as a social revolution by the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, and others. More than 62% of those who cast a vote voted for marriage equality. Now, the House has the chance to vote for employment equality to go with it. The referendum result was a powerful blow against discrimination, inequality and homophobia. It showed that the traditional picture of a socially conservative majority in society is simply and fundamentally incorrect. It showed that immense social change has taken place and that this of itself becomes a pressure point for more change and progress. The gay rights campaigner, Harvey Milk, once said that hope will never be silent. Those who mobilised in the recent referendum campaign will not now be silent. The tens of thousands who registered to vote, who came home to vote and who campaigned to convince others to vote "Yes" will not now be silent and will continue to campaign.

That Ireland was the first country to vote for marriage equality in a popular referendum sends a powerful signal throughout the world that marriage equality can be won and that change can happen. Moreover, it sends a signal for further change in this country. It remains the case that discrimination and homophobia continue in this State. We know that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, LGBTQ, people are seven times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than straight people. We know that young LGBTQ people face much higher rates of depression and self-harm. We know that, according to a recent EU survey, half of LGBTQ people were discriminated against in the past 12 months because they were LGBTQ. Almost one in five were discriminated against in the workplace in the previous 12 months and 8% had been physically attacked or threatened with violence. The vast majority of that discrimination and harassment goes unreported because people believe nothing will be done about it and change will not happen.

We know that discrimination, inequality and homophobia persist. While legal change cannot change all that in one fell swoop, it can send a signal that homophobia is not acceptable, as opposed to being enshrined in law. The ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men continues. It must be ended. We need gender recognition legislation that takes into account all the criticisms made by transgender people, including those under 18 years of age. We need this to be passed into law as soon as possible. In particular, and this is what this Bill from the Anti-Austerity Alliance is about, we need to end the incredible situation whereby church-run schools, hospitals or charitable institutions can discriminate against LGBTQ people, atheists, unmarried mothers, divorced people, minority faiths and others. Now is clearly the time to end all legal discrimination as a step towards real equality and a progressive secular State with separation of church and State.

The infamous section 37 of the Employment Equality Act that we are trying to remove is particularly offensive. It functions as an exemption to the employment equality legislation. It allows a religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes to discriminate against an employee or prospective employee to prevent them from undermining the religious ethos of the institution. This broad exemption covers thousands of workers in this State. It includes teachers, special needs assistants, nurses, doctors, health care assistants, charity workers and others. Given that close to 95% of our primary schools, 50% of our secondary schools and many of our hospitals are church-run, this is a particularly serious issue. The legal meaning of this section is to permit discrimination against workers to maintain the religious ethos of the institution. In practice, it means that LGBTQ teachers and atheist hospital workers can be legally discriminated against. It means that workers in a charitable institution who are unmarried mothers or who have relationships that may be deemed to be against the religious ethos of the Catholic Church can be legally discriminated against. It means they could be fired on those grounds without legal recourse to the equality legislation. It also means they could be and in fact are discriminated against in terms of promotion opportunities. Above all, it creates a chilling effect whereby LGBTQ workers, teachers in particular, are told not to be open about their sexuality. It adds to a socialising of homophobic attitudes and behaviour and cuts across those who attempt to intervene and stop homophobic bullying, for example.

This is not a new issue. It originally arose in the Eileen Flynn case. Eileen Flynn was sacked in August 1982 because of her relationship with a separated man. The decision was then upheld by the courts. This section has been opposed by the teachers' unions since it was introduced. In 2012, the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, promised to get rid of it. A Bill amending section 37 has been stuck in the Seanad for over two years. The Minister of State with responsibility for equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has not made the promised amendments yet and brought it forward. This is the first time this legislation has been brought on Second Stage in the Dáil. We have had enough of waiting for this, especially in the context of the referendum result. It is essential that this is gone in time before the new school year starts. I am pleased that the Bill has the support of a wide number of groups, including the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, the ASTI, the INTO, the TUI, Atheist Ireland, LGBT Noise and ICTU Youth.

I will go through our Bill quickly. It is very simple. It deletes the exemption that currently exists. Instead, it clearly states that no religious organisation "may give less favourable treatment on gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, Traveller community, disability grounds or the ground of race to employees or prospective employees in services it operates including educational or medical institutions". This would mean the discrimination against LGBTQ employees and others in schools, hospitals and elsewhere would no longer be legal. It replaces the relevant subsection with a more limited wording which would allow a religious organisation itself, rather than a service it operates or directs, to discriminate in favour of an employee on the basis or grounds of religion alone, where it is a justified occupational requirement. For example, this would allow the Catholic Church to discriminate in favour of Catholics when employing priests.

We have heard that the Government will not oppose this Bill and that is very welcome. We urge that it should not sit on the shelves after passing tomorrow night but that it should be quickly brought on to Committee Stage and enacted before the start of the next school term, which means before the summer break.

In previous debates in the Seanad the argument has been made that change such as we have proposed would be unconstitutional. We do not believe that to be the case. The Constitution gives every religious denomination the right to manage its own affairs. It also says that the State shall not make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status. Furthermore, it states that all citizens shall be held equal before the law. These conflicting rights are contained in the Constitution and it is up to the Oireachtas to get the balance between those rights.

As things stand, however, the balance is overwhelmingly in favour of the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs, even extending to institutions they run, control or direct. Our Bill would shift that balance more in the direction of the right of workers to equality. However, it would continue to recognise the right of religions to manage their own affairs. In any case, if there are particular issues with the wording in the Bill, they can be dealt with by way of appropriate amendments on Committee Stage.

Other Bills have been introduced in both the Dáil and Seanad which have attempted to address this issue. The Bill the Government has referred to repeatedly and which is on Committee Stage in the Seanad was introduced by Senator Ivana Bacik. That legislation would eliminate discrimination in publicly funded institutions, except on the grounds of religion where this is a "genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement". Although the Bill would represent an important step forward relative to the current situation, it is too limited. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has correctly described it as providing "a partial thaw in the chilling effect". The Bill has two key limitations. First, the fact it is limited to publicly funded institutions means church-run institutions which do not receive State funding could continue to discriminate on all the grounds. Employment rights should not depend on whether one's employer is in the private or public sector. Second, the Bill retains the grounds of religion as a means of discrimination, including in institutions run by religious denominations, as opposed to within the religious denominations themselves, where it is demonstrated to be necessary by the employer. This would mean a potential continuation of discrimination in schools, hospitals and charitable institutions. In particular, it would leave atheists open to discrimination and might also affect LGBTQ people and others who may be deemed to be in contravention of a particular set of religious beliefs.

Also in the Seanad, Senator Averil Power introduced a Bill in 2012 which would likewise represent a big step forward over the current situation. Again, however, it does not propose to delete the relevant subsection of section 37. The existence of a right to discriminate on ethos grounds would remain even if it would be somewhat restricted. In the Dail, the Bill published by Deputy Jonathan O'Brien of Sinn Féin in February 2013 has the same issues.

I return now to the more substantial points relating to this Bill. People mobilised and voted in significant numbers for marriage equality. It is time now to vote in this House for employment equality. There are those who ask what the big deal is in respect of section 37 given that no one has even been fired for being, for example, a gay teacher. The big deal, which is felt every day, is the chilling effect of the existing provision on employees in schools, hospitals and elsewhere. The big deal is the gay teacher who entered an online radio competition earlier this year to win a wedding online and felt obliged to pixelate her face in the video because she was nervous about being openly gay. As the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, said at the time: "People should be horrified to live in a country where people think they have to pixelate their faces in a competition to protect their jobs." According to The Irish Times, he followed up that comment by pledging to have the Employment Equality Acts changed by Easter. The big deal is those teachers who spoke out to thejournal.ie website last year about how they were shunned in school after being found out to be gay. They spoke of being dropped from training the football team, left isolated in the staffroom and feeling unable able to tackle homophobic bullying by students. It is a very big deal that we have laws in this country which allow discrimination against public sector workers.

The Bill we are bringing forward is part of the movement for progressive social change, which is a demand being heard throughout the country in the light of the marriage equality referendum. Teachers, health workers or any other workers should not be discriminated against because of their sexuality, religion or for any reason. More fundamentally, we should not have any church controlling our education or health services. We need a secular society, with properly funded and State-provided public services. A secular society means everyone is perfectly entitled and free to practise whatever religion they want, with no interference from the State. Indeed, the State would defend their right to do so. It also would mean, however, a separation between the actions of a church and the actions of the State, without, as has happened since the foundation of this State, a church being relied upon to run and control vital public services.

This Bill is an important step in that direction. It will remove the right of discrimination against LGBTQ people, atheists, people of minority religions, unmarried mothers and others. Passing it here will strike a blow for employment equality in keeping with the blow that was struck for marriage equality in the recent referendum. It must quickly be debated in committee and enacted as soon as possible. It needs to be done before another school year starts in September.

The Government's decision to accept this Bill is extremely welcome. It is a tribute to the social movement that took place around the marriage equality referendum. Let us face it, if that referendum had not been passed in such a decisive way, we probably would not be having this debate or seeing the Government accepting the Bill.

I take this opportunity to thank the teachers' unions, the ASTI, the TUI and the INTO, for their support for our Bill. I also thank the ICTU youth committee which issued a statement of support last night. I pay tribute, in particular, to the LGBTQ groups within the teacher unions. In referring to comments made by people in those groups, I wish to illustrate the degree of fear among teachers about coming out as gay or even having a non-conforming lifestyle. I speak as a member of ASTI and as someone who is aware of many cases of teachers who have hidden their sexuality. These people have had to suppress who they are while in work. We now have a situation where teachers can legally marry a person of the same sex but cannot go into the staffroom and talk openly about it or invite colleagues to their wedding for fear of negative consequences for their employment and promotion prospects. I have spoken to teachers who have told no one at their school they are gay and who continually check themselves in case anyone guesses. This is happening not just in rural areas but in our capital city right now.

As my colleague mentioned, several gay teachers spoke to thejournal.ie about their experiences. That website did us all a service in reporting those interviews. One teacher spoke about being invited in on a Monday for a chat with the school principal and the chairman of the board, who is the local parish priest, after being seen in a particular pub with a person of the same sex. The remarks to this teacher were prefaced with an assurance that there was no intention to say the person could not be of a particular sexuality, but what was made clear was that the teacher could not be allowed to "promote that lifestyle" in the school. This is happening in our country in 2015. That teacher was isolated within the school, essentially bullied and obliged to give up some of the extracurricular activities in which the person was engaged with students. The silencing effect on gay and transgender teachers in our schools is not just a consequence of section 37, but the removal of that section would send a very strong message to teachers to take courage, come out and challenge homophobia within schools.

We must ask ourselves why this culture exists in schools. The reason is the religious ethos that pervades our education system, an ethos which views LGBTQ people as somehow disordered and somehow unsafe to be in the company of children. During the marriage equality referendum, one of the Catholic bishops asked whether its schools would seriously be expected to teach students about same-sex relationships. That was the issue for the church. The debate opened up to scrutiny what is happening in schools and showed the chilling effect on teachers.

As Deputy Paul Murphy noted, some people have asked what the big deal is given that no one has been sacked under the section 37 provisions. When I looked up statistics for the United States, I found that 11 people came out publicly to say they were sacked for being gay in that country in 2011. Ten of those 11 worked in education. Why is it that teachers, in particular, are being subjected to a different standard from that applied to other workers? That is not acceptable, particularly following a marriage equality referendum in which people in this country made clear their wish to remove discrimination, end the oppression of the past and ensure people are not upset in their personal lives.

We have not seen sackings yet, but a person does not need to be sacked. I mentioned the case of the teacher called in for a chat. We have also had someone hiding her face, something the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, commented on at the time. This is not unusual. The Anti-Austerity Alliance held a press conference this morning. I spoke to a number of teachers and asked them if they would speak at it. I know they feel really strongly on the issue, but they were afraid, even after the marriage equality referendum. They were afraid it would somehow jeopardise their relationship with the school and their promotion prospects.

It is not just gay and lesbian teachers who face these threats. This is a broader issue. Eileen Flynn is a case some of us are old enough to remember as it was going on. She was a teacher, in a relationship with a separated father of three young children, who became pregnant and was fired from her school. She lost her case because, unfortunately, in Ireland there is an exemption, in reality, which allows discrimination by religious-run institutions. Unfortunately for Eileen Flynn, she was not a union member as well, which did not help. Could that situation happen again? I think it could. There are cases, particularly in rural areas, where the school management has a very conservative ethos. We have seen cases cited in recent times. A school in Sligo queried why it should introduce a child-centred education when a whole number of cases involving sexual abuse allegations were brought up. I do not think it is out of the world that this would pass.

In the United States, Catholic schools are an increasing sector in education. A teacher in a Catholic school in California was sacked days after marrying his partner in a civil ceremony. The reason given was that the marriage occurred and the school's position was that it violated church teachings. The school issued a statement saying that it would continue to educate students in the tradition of the Catholic faith and that "[a]s a Benedictine school, St. Lucy's is a community for those who wish to express Christian values and education and develop personal and academic excellence". In other words, people are expected to conform to a narrow view of what the Catholic hierarchy deem to be acceptable. There was also the case in the United States of a teacher who was fired and called an immoral sinner by a Catholic school because she had IVF treatment. She announced at school that she was pregnant and disclosed to someone in good faith, in a personal conversation, that she had IVF treatment. She was subsequently dismissed because it was deemed not to be a good example for students and not to go along with Catholic teaching.

Section 37 brings up the historical connection between Church and State in this country. Some 96% of primary schools have denominational patronage and 90% of them are Catholic-owned or run. The situation in secondary schools is not much better. We have schools which are called community schools but there is Catholic patronage in many of those schools as well. This does not reflect a choice among the population. There is a big demand for more diversity. I know this from my own area. Even if it did reflect the wishes of the majority, minority rights also matter. The United Nations and the Council of Europe have raised this issue of education five times with the State. The State funds all schools. It pays the salaries and trains the teachers, but it allows admission policies which are exclusive and it allows exemptions to employment law.

We need a separation of church and State in this country. That has become patently clear from the marriage equality referendum and from the wishes of the majority in society. It was young people who led that movement. What does it say about the homophobic and transgender attitudes that must be prevalent in many schools if teachers themselves cannot come out? What message is being sent to students who are gay? Let us not forget the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar. That this is a Catholic country was cited by a health professional. Archbishops are on the board of the National Maternity Hospital. Why? What gynaecological expertise does a bishop have that he would be sitting on a maternity hospital board? We need to separate church and State in order that women receive the care they need and minorities of all kinds are protected. We also have the huge issue of freedom of conscience. People who are not Catholic or religious are being forced to teach religion and to go to schools to which they do not really want to go. I welcome the support for the Bill and I hope it is moved very quickly and not left to gather dust.

I commend the Anti-Austerity Alliance Deputies on putting forward this legislation. I also commend the Government on announcing it is not opposing the Bill. However, I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, to resist the temptation that the Bill sits forever on Committee Stage and ends up dying with this Dáil as it comes to a close.

It is a surprising turn by the Government, which has repeatedly stated it could not delete section 37 due to constitutional issues and instead advocated that it should be amended. While this Bill amends section 37, it replaces it with wording which makes it clear that discrimination on any grounds by religious organisations or bodies under the direction or control of a religious organisation is unacceptable. It will be illegal to give less favourable treatment on the grounds of gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, membership of the Traveller community, disability or race. In essence, the Bill presents a cultural move away from the notion that public service providers such as schools, hospitals and clinics are institutions which hold special privilege when it comes to applying the principles of equality. We have deemed the marriage institution as incapable of discriminating against LGBT relationships and now it is time to extend that protection to other institutions.

The Bill addresses the wider issue of the relationship between the church and the State. The Catholic Church is still patron to almost 90% of Ireland's primary schools. Ireland is essentially experiencing a crisis in education provision, providing only one option for parents, an option which includes an ethos that is not reflective of the multicultural and modern society we see today.

I want to focus on the consequences of this section on education and, in particular, on children in the schools that are affected by it. A very important point to make is that while the section discriminates against potential employees or current employees, employees at least have the freedom to move. Children have less mobility, physically and emotionally. They do not have the freedom to question authority, hold it to account or pick and choose where they feel they would be best educated. It is imperative, therefore, that we provide them with the safest, most inclusive environment in the schools they attend. This is only possible if the educational institution's ethos is inclusive and promotes diversity and equality. Currently this is not reflected through the management of our educational system. The parish priest still effectively manages the board of management of national schools. The diocese nominates three members, including the chairperson, to the board of management. There are two teacher representatives on the board. The board is stacked in favour of the ethos because the teachers may not feel they can challenge it if they are to protect their jobs.

I am a member of the board of management in my local school in Killybegs. The school has a very inclusive ethos and it works very well. The board of management works on that basis. There have never been any issues or questions about inclusion or anything such as that in the school. At the same time, the legislation is still there in the background and the chilling effect, a phrase I hate, is often talked about. We have to deal with it.

If this Bill were passed, it would ensure a more equal environment for prospective employees and current employees. Section 37, as far as I know, has not been challenged and we all know that on the surface schools seem fairly relaxed about imposing the Catholic ethos on employment procedures. However, discrimination can be and often is silent. How many promotions were passed over because an employee did not fit the profile due to his or her sexuality, beliefs or ethnicity? How can we truly know the full consequences of section 37 if discrimination of this kind is protected in legislation?

The enactment of this Bill would ensure a more equal environment for children and the students who attend the schools affected by it.

Children cannot interview a prospective teacher or sit on a board of management, so they must place their trust in the adults in their surroundings. If those adults practise principles of equality they are certain to benefit from that, as people will be hired to teach based on their ability and not on allegiance to a particular ethos. It would also ensure greater transparency in the hiring process, ensuring that people of non-faith or minority religious backgrounds and publicly identified LGBT people are not deterred from training or taking up employment as teachers in the State. This was stated in the current Government's programme for Government as one of its commitments.

There are a number of contradictions surrounding section 37. The Equal Status Act protects an individual from discrimination on the basis of the grounds as outlined in the wording of this proposed new Bill, but the individual is not protected from discrimination when it comes to certain religious organisations or bodies controlled by them. The original Bill is also in contradiction to the anti-bullying action plan of the Department of Education and Skills, which promotes a transparent, accessible approach to reporting bullying, with the full engagement of the board of management of the school. To add to the contradiction, there are competing rights involved, including freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, the right to privacy and to earn a living, freedom of expression and conscience and the right to freedom from harassment and discrimination. The constitutional obligation on the State to vindicate the personal rights of citizens is also included and has caused division in approaches to the section.

I wish to stress that the right to education, something I pursued in my proposed economic, cultural and social rights Bill, is a fundamental right our children deserve. However, they are lost among the competing rights because for some reason we do not see them as citizens. We cannot forget that they are citizens. For as long as the Government outsources its education provision to the Catholic Church, the patronage system will view education as an indoctrination of teachings and of religious ethos. This bears a heavy weight on LGBT children. The legacy of such teachings has chilled the environment enough to halt or restrict the experience of childhood, and its transition into adulthood.

This has restricted many teachers too. As the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO, has indicated, 90 teachers have emerged as LGBT and it predicts that many more may come out in the wake of the success of the marriage referendum. We cannot resist the fact that in many parts of the country, although not all, there is a growing demand for non-denominational education. Immigration and emigration have contributed to the transformation of our monocultural society. With children coming from many different backgrounds, we must ensure that they are all equal in the eyes of the State, and this can only be done if our education system is equal.

I take this opportunity to thank BeLonG To, and especially its director, Michael Barron. The organisation has campaigned on section 37 for the past 12 years and has seen this issue come and go under previous Governments. BeLonG To has also been involved with four other Private Members' Bills that have been brought before the Dáil and Seanad in an attempt to address what we are trying to address in section 37, but to no avail. I welcome the fact that the Government has not declined its support, but I urge it to keep section 37 on the agenda. I also urge the Department of Education and Skills to maintain a strong focus on the implementation of its anti-bullying action plan in schools. Greater resources are required to ensure it is effective in every school in Ireland. Now that the Government has identified areas to tackle homophobic bullying in primary and post-primary schools, it must ensure its application and monitor the success of its take-up. Perhaps the Government would indicate any plans it has to review that implementation and to assess the effectiveness of the plan.

I also welcome the legislation and thank the Deputies for using Private Members' time for Second Stage. I am pleased that the Minister indicated when he was appointed to office that the reform of section 37 was a priority for him. I acknowledge that he has a legitimate intention in that regard and we all appreciate the fact that this Bill is not being opposed by the Government. However, that does not necessarily mean that the Bill will move forward in the way it should. We must see follow through on it.

The Bill naturally follows from the positive result of the referendum on 22 May. We all felt very good about that result. Deputies from all sides of the House will look back on that day with a good deal of fondness. It was a very positive day and a day on which, for a change, many of us felt we were not fighting with each other. Most of us were on the same side. Many of us became involved in politics with the goal of achieving equality for all citizens - equal rights, equality of opportunities and equality of outcome, equal access to services of the State, equal access to health care and education and equal pay for equal work. All of us could write a long list regarding equality. That is the reason section 37 of the Employment Equality Act sticks out like a sore thumb, containing wide ranging and blank cheque language to provide for State sanctioned discrimination. There is no legitimate reason for it and that is acknowledged by many people.

During the referendum campaign I knew some teachers who were gay or lesbian but who did not speak publicly. They were concerned for their jobs because of the environment in which they worked. People tend to think this happens in Catholic schools, but that was not entirely the case. It was more than that, and we can perhaps understand that this could be the case. They did not feel they could compromise their job security. Some of them love being teachers and are very good teachers, which should be the main reason that we employ people to teach children in our classrooms. Consider the daily reality of being a teacher in a school where one cannot participate in the discussions in the staff canteen and fears how much of one's personal life to reveal. It is a very personal thing for teachers. While many gay and lesbian teachers teach openly in schools, which is very positive, a long shadow is cast by virtue of the legislation being in place. That is the reason it should be removed.

As I said, there was a positive feeling after the referendum not just among the people directly affected by the result but also in the wider community in terms of what it meant. While I am not at all religious, I acknowledge the remarks of people such as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin - I believe we must try to work with such people - who recognised many of the very positive attributes of that day. People felt their community and country accepted them for what they are and that they could live honest lives. I thought that would resonate with part of the ethos on which he would have been commenting.

I believe this country has an attitude of live and let live, and that we wish to give maximum freedom for people to live their lives and not have laws where they are inappropriate. Some of the countries in which same-sex marriage has been legalised, such as Brazil, France, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Belgium, Luxembourg, Uruguay and Argentina, are countries with a Catholic majority. In addition, polls in the United States show majority support for same-sex marriage among Catholics. Obviously, a powerful message was sent from this Republic when the citizens made the decision. That has not been lost on anybody and it is obviously the reason it was commented on so widely.

However, there are wider issues to be raised, including school patronage and expanding that patronage. School patronage did not start after the foundation of the State. It dates back to the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation, in particular, when schools started to develop usually under a patron. It is a hangover from an out of date time in our history.

This is why we need more movement and to give more choice, not only to teachers but also to parents making choices for their children. A wider choice results in options very quickly. The Educate Together schools are a case in point even though religion is taught in them. The need for wider choice is appreciated. It is even appreciated within the religious-run schools themselves.

I thank Deputies Coppinger, Higgins and Murphy for bringing this Private Members' Bill before the House.

Deputies will be well aware of my strong convictions on the need to amend section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act 1998. I entirely agree with the Deputies proposing the legislation that it is wrong to discriminate or exclude people from employment or to deny them services under the nine grounds of the equality legislation. It is our collective belief across this House and society that one's gender, sexual orientation, civil status, religion, age, disability, ethnicity or membership of the Traveller community should never be used to discriminate or exclude. It is for that very reason that I was one of the proposers of the Employment Equality (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2013, which is currently awaiting Committee Stage in the Seanad. I proposed it with my colleagues Senator Bacik and Deputies Lyons, Hannigan and Conway.

Since my appointment as a Minister of State, I have met union representatives, including the INTO LGBT group, on a number of occasions to discuss this topic with them. I was involved in the launch of the “Teachers for Yes” campaign earlier this year in addition to speaking at the INTO LGBT group’s annual conference. I have heard at first hand the group’s stories about teachers who are afraid to be themselves in their workplace. This is not acceptable. These are the people who train our young people, teach them how to read and write and give so much to our society. Divorcees, cohabiting couples and unmarried parents experience the same chill factor. They all deserve to have the right to be themselves in their place of work.

The existing section 37(1) of Employment Equality Act 1998, as amended by section 25 of the Equality Act 2004, provides that a religious, educational or medical institution that is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes or whose objectives include the provision of services in an environment that promotes certain religious values shall not be taken to discriminate against a person if it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or prospective employee where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution, or it takes action that is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.

The provision was previously contained in the Employment Equality Bill 1996, which was referred by the President to the Supreme Court under Article 26 of the Constitution. While the court held that Bill to be unconstitutional on other grounds, the constitutionality of what is now section 37 was upheld as a reasonable balance between the competing constitutional rights involved. While we can seek to find a new balance that better meets the rights of employees, the Supreme Court decision outlines the need for balance to be struck; it is not simply a matter of deleting certain elements of the existing Act.

While the provision was found in 1997 to strike a reasonable balance between the rights of employees, on the one hand, and freedom of religion, on the other, there is legitimate concern that, in practice, it has not worked. Primarily, its operation is regarded as having a particularly chilling effect on LGBT people in the educational system; however, it also affects lone parents and divorcees who are restricted in discussing their private lives with their colleagues in the safety of their staff room.

It should be noted that many countries provide for an equivalent of section 37 in their statute book. The main difference is that most countries do not have the vast majority of their schools and hospitals under religious patronage.

During my numerous meeting with the INTO LGBT group, I have heard stories of teachers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender experiencing feelings of isolation and disempowerment in their work. They feel constrained in what they can disclose about their personal lives to their colleagues fearing that this will affect their career or even their daily experience of work in the school. Some even fear the prejudices of parents and students. I have always believed that it is a sad reflection of our equality law that it could be used to make people feel so unequal.

For this reason, the Government, in the programme for Government, committed to amending section 37(1) to ensure that its operation leads to a fairer and more equitable balance between the rights of freedom of religion or association, on the one hand, and the right of persons in employment or prospective employees to be free from discrimination and to privacy in their personal lives, on the other.

The Government is committed to advancing equality for LGBT people. During our term of office we have introduced the Children and Family Relationships Bill, recognising the different types of families that exist in our State. We held a marriage equality referendum, which both Government parties supported, to ensure that LGBT citizens can get married. We introduced the Gender Recognition Bill to allow people to identify in their chosen gender. We are tackling homophobic bullying in schools. Section 37 is the next step on this journey.

On 23 May, there was a collective celebration of joy among LGBT people and their allies as we watched this country enshrine tolerance and love into our Constitution. I was so proud to stand with my LGBT friends and cheer with them as we watched the passage by our people of full marriage equality into our law. I was so proud to be Irish that day as we became the first country in the world to grant full marriage equality by means of a public vote. However, it saddened me that some of the people with whom I was celebrating had to go to work the following Monday and pretend nothing had happened. They could not mention that they had celebrated, nor could they mention the benefit the change in law would have for them. This is why, in one of my first public statements after the referendum, I made clear my intention to continue with the work I started in 2013 and ensure that this section of our law would be amended as soon as possible.

One of the stories that has stuck with me since I began my work on this matter concerns the meeting this year between the INTO LGBT group and our President, Mr. Michael D. Higgins, at Áras an Uachtaráin. This was to be a day of great celebration and recognition of many years of campaigning work. As the group assembled, its members walked with pride and joy up to the main entrance of the residence. They stood and walked together but, unfortunately, some of them became nervous when a group photograph was suggested. Deeply uncomfortable, at least half a dozen of these teachers stepped to the side, afraid of any consequences that being photographed would have for their career. We live in a republic and, quite simply, this should not happen.

The approach of tonight's Bill is somewhat different from that taken in the 2013 Private Members’ Bill in that it proposes removing the right of religious-run educational and medical institutions to take action against an employee who is undermining the institution's ethos. However, I believe the spirit of what we are trying to achieve is much the same, which is why the Government will not be opposing the Bill before us.

I have a fear that in tonight's Bill there is a conflict with the constitutional protection for freedom of religion and of religious groups to establish their own institutions of the type at issue here. It is also unclear as to how it would provide any guidance on how to resolve disputes between employees and employers. It would remain the case that an employer has the right to take the action against employees who act against the employer's best interests, and disputes would, following the deletion of the existing provision, fall to be resolved under generally applicable labour relations law.

The best course of action is to progress with the 2013 Private Members’ Bill as it insists that employers that are religious institutions providing publicly funded services would have to meet a high standard of justification for any action taken against an employee on grounds of undermining the institution's ethos.

This Bill does not distinguish between religious institutions run wholly for private purposes compared with those providing a social, educational or medical service to the public financed by State funding. This is an important distinction that must be provided for in any amending legislation to ensure its constitutionality.

The Government has already accepted the principle of the Employment Equality (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, currently before the Seanad, to amend section 37(1). It will be tabling a number of amendments of its own to improve the Private Members’ Bill when Committee Stage resumes later in the Seanad. The drafting of these amendments is being finalised at present and will be announced as soon as they are received from the Office of Parliamentary Counsel and approved by the Government. The intention thereafter is to have the Bill enacted as quickly as possible, hopefully by September.

The test the Oireachtas must meet when legislating on this matter is to do as the Supreme Court instructed and maintain a proportionate balance between the rights of religious denominations to manage their own affairs and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and the rights of citizens to have full equality before the law and to earn their livelihood.

The intentions of the Bill before us are commendable, but we all need to bear in mind very clearly that there is no room for error and that any attempt at reform could be struck down by the courts in the future.

This could have a serious adverse impact on precisely the people we are trying to protect. Given the delicate competing rights involved here, it is vital that we carefully consider our approach to reform with the advice of the Attorney General to ensure that it is constitutionally robust and immune from future successful challenge. I can guarantee to everyone in this House that it would be challenged. For that reason, while the Government is not opposing this Bill, we consider that it is better to continue as we are doing which is to advance reform of section 37(1) through amendments to the already mentioned Employment Equality (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill that is currently before the Seanad. I hope that the Deputies can understand my reasons for this approach, which are not against the good intentions of the Bill, and accept that the Government is as anxious as any to see this matter addressed as quickly as possible in a way that is constitutionally compliant.

So much of my work as Minister of State with responsibility for new communities, culture, equality and drugs strategy is based around the dignity employment brings to an individual or a community. A job brings financial security but it brings a sense of purpose and self-esteem. Traveller groups point to the high level of unemployment in their community as a key issue to be addressed. The comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities which I am currently working on will help those with disabilities into the workplace and protect those workers who acquire a disability. Gender equality in the workplace and introducing progressive family leave legislation is a key commitment for this year. Work is central to our identity as citizens. It is a place where we can grow and contribute. It is where we must be able to be ourselves. There can be no chill factor, which is why we will amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille seo agus gabhaim buíochas, mar aon le Teachtaí eile, leis na páirtithe sóisialta, go mór mór an Teachta Dála Seosamh Ó hUiginn. In welcoming the Bill and acknowledging that we are almost unanimous in this House in acknowledging that we need to change section 37, I am reminded of an incident in my younger days as a young teacher knowing that I was gay and being genuinely afraid because of the ethos of the school and the environment that existed. I wondered whether we would ever come to a day where teachers of any description would be free to be who they are. Thankfully, we are moving to that moment in time in our separation of Church and State where all citizens will be free to be who they are. I pay tribute to the Minister of State for the work he has done since becoming Minister of State and before that because he has been very much to the fore with regard to that legislation.

It is important that we acknowledge anecdotally that there are people in our schools who have been refused promotion, be it to the post of year head, another post of responsibility, principal or vice principal. I know them. There are people today who are afraid to come out and who, as the Minister of State alluded to, did not participate in the referendum and went back to school on Monday morning to a workforce that was in its own way delighted with the result. Those people did not have the ability to be free to join that celebration. Surely we are at a point where to deny somebody promotional opportunities because of their sexual orientation, which is deemed to be contrary to the ethos of the school, is no longer tenable. That exists in our schools today. I challenge those who oppose what we are trying to achieve in this House to speak to people who have had that position thrust upon them. Equally, some people from the LGBT community who are substituting or moving from school to school are afraid to reveal who they are because it might hinder their prospects of getting a job in a school. As we heard in another fine contribution, this leads to members of the teaching profession being isolated, promotes invisibility and exclusion and above all, adds to the mental health difficulties and distress of individuals within the gay community. This is wrong and should never be allowed to continue at a time when we have a very strong anti-bullying regime in our schools, which again is to the credit of this Government. I pay tribute to the former Minister for Education and Skills for the work he did in this regard.

To many people outside our education system, section 37 may mean nothing but it casts a huge dark cloud over many within our education system. It is that chill factor that I and many of my colleagues felt where we had to hide who we were for a variety of reasons, one of which was this. I taught religion in a secondary school. One can imagine what would have happened had I ever dared to show certain characteristics, which I did at times to my cost. It is difficult to come in here and speak about that because so many of my colleagues did not come out in school and were refused promotional opportunities because of their sexual orientation. That is wrong, which is why this debate is about ensuring that regardless of whether it is in our education system or health care setting, religious freedom is allowed and protected but at the same time, those of us who are gay are allowed to be up-front about who we are and our personal lives.

I am often struck by the many wonderful people in our education system who go into school every day, teach and prepare children to be the best they can be. Those of us who have worked in staff rooms know that the staff room is perhaps the most political place one could ever be where people talk about their weekends and their partners and ask you what you did and where you went. You say "I went here and I went there." They ask you "who did you go with?" and you answer "oh, with a gang." Thankfully, we are changing that part of the lexicon of our staff rooms. Teachers can tell their stories about their weekends or holidays with their partners. However, because section 37 stands, it still precludes people from doing that. On a Monday morning over coffee or at lunch time, some people must pick and choose where they sit or the conversation they can have. This is not right. It is not just people from the LGBT community who are affected. In theory, this hovers over people with a different religious perspective, ethos and belief from that of a religious body that operates within the workplace. Our society prevents discrimination and has many strong legal protections in place to protect against unequal treatment because of sexual orientation and religious belief. In celebrating the 22nd anniversary of the Unfair Dismissals Act, it is time that we ensure that a person cannot be fired or even deprived of promotion because of their sexual orientation. The Employment Equality Act was passed 17 years ago this month adding to the protections on the grounds of sexual orientation. We can and will build on these transformative pieces of legislation. We can make them fairer and better.

In his speech, the Minister of State spoke about 23 May 2015. It was probably one of the greatest days we will ever have. It was better than Cork winning the double. It was better than Cork ever beating Kerry. That is how I can describe the euphoria from a Cork man's perspective. Deputy Higgins will understand what I am saying, as will the Minister of State who is a sporting man as well. That day signified that we had moved as a nation in the eyes of the world but equally among ourselves. It was not about liberal or conservative, Catholic or non-Catholic or left versus right. It was the country coming together to say we had moved to a different place. What we are saying in this Bill and the Bill the Minister of State will bring forward is that people from the LGBT community should be treated in the same way as their heterosexual friends and colleagues in the workplace. Even though our people voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality and showed we are an open, progressive society, we also showed that we accept and recognise difference and that we want all of us to be treated equally. When it comes to employment, we continue to have this provision that does provide for discrimination even though I presume it will never be used. It still hovers over us, particularly within the education system. We must be consistent in our approach to discrimination. We cannot accept legislative provisions that potentially facilitate discrimination based on sexual orientation. That inconsistency needs to be addressed. I am confident that the programme for Government commitment will deliver on this and we will see an amendment to section 37. The programme for Government is clear on that. The Minister and Minister for State are quite clear on that.

We will remove this barrier.

I welcome the Minister of State's speech and the work he has done on this issue to date. It is important that we do not divide the House. We must send a unified message on this because we are basically saying the same thing and we should try to reach the end game together. That is why it is important that we all remain sound on this issue, which is about men and women. I wish to pay tribute to the INTO's LGBT group and its chairman, Ann Marie Lillis, for the work it has been doing. That group demonstrated, long before it was popular or acceptable, and served as the voice for the LGBT community within our education system, along with the ASTI and the TUI. We are near completion on this. I understand the difficulties that the Minister of State spoke about earlier. It would be wrong of us to get to the final furlong in this race only to trip up. We need to take this to the final game successfully. As the Minister of State said, there is no room for error on this.

I welcome this debate. Given the progress already made on gender recognition and marriage equality, it is clear that this Government has done a huge amount of work in terms of equality for those of us who are gay. I will finish by quoting Harvey Milk, the famous and great campaigner who said, "It takes no compromise to give people their rights ... it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression". Hopefully, when it comes to equality and people who are gay, this Government will not be found wanting.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill and thank the Socialist Party for putting it forward. It is timely that we should debate it now, in the aftermath of the historic and overwhelming endorsement by the people of marriage equality in the recent referendum. When one looks at the wording of this, one cannot help but be struck by how we are still grappling with historical legacies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when this State and its institutions were being put in place. The system of educational provision was outsourced. There was such distrust in the institutions of the State that it was required that our health and education systems would be run by religious institutions. That is not in any way to cast aspersions on the religious because no-one else was providing health care or education at that time. They were stepping in to fill the gap and to provide a service that was vital. It is instructive to look at the wording of the 1937 Constitution, which was written under the close eye of the Catholic hierarchy at the time. It says that the State "shall provide for free primary education". It does not say that the State shall provide it but that it shall provide "for" it. That key word, "for", changes the entire constitutional dynamic by which we can interfere in, govern or legislate for our education system. It essentially says that the State provides the architecture but must allow for others to provide the service. That is a huge distinction and it was designed to protect and promote a system of religious education which is at the core of our Constitution. It means that when we talk about what schools and religious authorities can demand from those who work for them, we are constrained by very significant constitutional provisions and legal architecture which cannot simply be dismissed.

If I were to go back in time and have a say in the way the education system operates, I would not be happy with our model. Neither would I be happy with the compromise model as suggested by the forum on pluralism and patronage, which is to divest schools and create Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, non-denominational schools and so forth. I do not think that works. It is segregation; it creates differences based on beliefs and puts people into boxes or separate institutions. If I had my way, I would follow the German model, having worked there as a teacher for a year. In Germany, instruction for all religions takes place within the school. One of the classes is religion and for that period, students are segregated but they come back together again for English, mathematics and so forth. That is a much better approach but unfortunately, unless there is a very serious redesign of our Constitution, we will not be able to do that. Four years after starting the divestment process, very limited progress has happened which suggests that trying to do anything more radical will not be possible in the short term.

The nub of this issue is tolerance versus acceptance, "equal but we're better" and the "don't ask and don't tell" mentality. The message is, "Yes, okay, but shut up". That is not equality or acceptance. It is not giving people the pride and dignity of their own self worth and their own humanity or assuring them that, in the eyes of everyone, they are equal and deserving of respect for who they are. That is the crux of the matter.

The efforts being made here by both Bills to change this situation would probably be approved of by a majority similar to that which passed the marriage equality referendum. However, we are still dealing here with an entrenched position on the part of Catholic schools and, indeed, other denominational schools. There will be entrenched opposition to this, which is why we should err on the side of constitutionality and work within what we know are the confines of the Constitution. That is the better way to proceed. I understand that some sections of the Bill as proposed are deemed to have the potential to conflict with the current constitutional architecture whereas the Bill that was put forward by the Minister of State and Senator Bacik, the Employment Equality Bill 2013, takes a more nuanced view and fits within the confines of the Constitution. Either way, the efforts by the Socialist Party, the fact that this issue is on the agenda, is being debated and that the Minister of State has given such a welcome commitment are all things to be positive about. I hope we can have the legislation enacted as soon as possible.

It still leaves the problem of the Catholic schools. That is the issue, which I will return to tomorrow evening.

In supporting this Bill, I wish first to praise my former party leader, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. We would not be where we are today but for his insistence that there be a referendum on marriage equality. I imagine that when he insisted on this, many people felt that there was no guarantee that it would go through. It is a sign of his far-sightedness that the threshold could be crossed. As someone who lived through the divorce referendum and who saw how that barely passed 20 years ago, I had a nervousness that the referendum would not carry or would only barely carry. I thought there would be a slippage into the "No" camp towards the end of the campaign. I thought the referendum would carry but I thought it would do so by a smaller majority. My apprehension was based on the experience of the divorce referendum, which barely scraped through.

We live in a changed world. To give a personal twist on this issue, when I was in my twenties I did the graduate teaching course in St. Patrick's in Drumcondra. On a number of occasions I had a dispute with the lecturer in religion about whether people should be obliged to teach denominational religion if they did not have the religious faith concerned. It was most interesting that while nearly all of my classmates agreed with what I was arguing, none of them would speak. It was possible for me to speak because I happened to be part of a minority.

I knew I would not be looking for a job in a Catholic school so I did not feel any nervousness in arguing that viewpoint. I believe we are in a changed place. I cannot envisage that being the case now.

I know the Minister of State present will recognise this. We can be very proud that irrespective of the denominational connection of most of our schools, from my knowledge and experience the practice is that schools are places of tolerance and inclusion, and every effort is made by the staff of schools to be inclusive and to encourage tolerance. It is because of that we are in a good place.

I agree with the remarks of the previous speaker, Deputy Nolan, on the teaching of religion. The German model is quite a good model if we could start from scratch. We have the great advantage of tradition and a determination on the part of schools to ensure that people are accepted and treated with respect. In view of that I am optimistic that the path forward on this legislation will be positive and beneficial for the country.

We support the Bill. We know it seeks to end the possibility of discrimination by religious institutions on the grounds set out in equality legislation. As a republican party, we are committed to seeing discrimination particularly in our public services come to an end. Over the course of this Dáil, similar legislation proposed in the Seanad in 2012 was rejected by the Government. I welcome that the Minister of State has expressed support for the spirit of the legislation.

The current exemption clause in the legislation is quite odious and essentially allows an employer to apply discrimination. Section 37(1) of the Act provides for exemptions for religious orders for the purpose of discrimination. The House widely agrees that section should be removed or replaced in that it is not representative of the spirit of society and the recent success of the legislation. The proposed legislation would introduce a new section 37(1). We welcome the idea of having favourable treatment and eliminating the clause of actively discriminating based on the grounds set out in the equality legislation.

There is a significant challenge. GLEN and the teachers' unions that have been involved in the campaign to date have made an incredible effort to get to this juncture. I acknowledge the dedication, commitment and above all the actions of everybody in the House who is prepared to vote for the Bill. I also acknowledge the trade union organisation and GLEN for their civic leadership in this respect.

Freedom of religion is an important constitutional value and one that we, as a party, respect. However, religion should not be used as an opportunity to permit discrimination, particularly when it comes to employment. It is unacceptable that the current legislation would target a small minority of people to be effectively discriminated against. Irrespective of the workplace, surely the ethos of the workplace should be about acknowledging people's differences and providing an opportunity to work with respect and in a harmonious environment.

I appreciate that there are concerns over the constitutional aspect of it. The test of the Oireachtas when it faces such legislation is to preserve the balance between the right of a religious denomination to manage its own affairs and maintain its own institutions for religious purposes, and the rights of citizens to have equality under the law.

I welcome the Bill, which will have our support. I acknowledge the commitment of the Minister of State in this respect to ensure everybody on that side of the House will wholeheartedly support the legislation when the decision comes to the House in the next 24 hours. Well done.

I thank Deputies Coppinger, Higgins and Paul Murphy for introducing this important legislation. I welcome that the Government has indicated support for it. Like previous speakers, I appeal that it should not languish, awaiting Committee Stage. The Government has supported many Bills to proceed to Committee Stage, but they go to Room 101 and make no progress. This Bill is too important to go to Room 101.

I welcome the introduction of the Bill, which sets out to amend the Employment Equality Act to ensure it cannot be used to discriminate against lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers on the grounds of a school's religious ethos. This has been an issue which has been widely debated, not least among those in our education sector and activists in the LGBT community.

At the end of 2013, I remember reading the thorough submission made by GLEN to the Equality Authority on this issue. In preparing for this debate I revisited that submission. It is striking that there is need for such a submission in 2015. This section should have been amended years ago.

At a time when Ireland has attracted global attention as a champion of LGBT equality, the Bill is another important stepping-stone in ensuring that Irish society is truly rid of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. We have, as a nation, voted with an overwhelming 62% to 38% majority, with just one constituency voting "No". It was a tremendous moment in our history, making us the first country in the world to vote for marriage equality. Collectively it was a great achievement for our people. Yet, in the classroom and workplace, outdated provisions such as section 37 mean that our LGBT teachers are still afraid that their sexual orientation will result in them being treated like second-class citizens.

My party firmly believes that discrimination and intolerance should be challenged and stamped out wherever it exists. The old days of loopholes and shelters for any type of ignorance should be put behind us. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers have the right to have their private lives respected and we must repeal archaic loopholes that allow discrimination in the name of ethos as quickly as possible.

We all believe teachers should be judged, employed and treated on the basis of their teaching ability alone. The ending of this legalised discrimination is about more than teachers, as was alluded to by a number of speakers. The weight of laws such as section 37 impresses upon gay, lesbian and transgender people the type of self-censorship which enables and propagates homophobia in general. Schools are where children form their identities, and learn and develop as individuals. It is paramount that our legislation and legal protections have tolerance, diversity and equality within them.

The treatment of lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers can have a major bearing on how young gay people see themselves. Teachers are role models for schoolchildren and this is no less true of gay teachers. Young people coming to terms with their sexuality should feel comfortable in having gay role models as teachers. When young gay people see that their role models are being discriminated against, or even verbally bullied, they will be less confident and less comfortable in asserting their individual rights.

Clearly it is incumbent on the Government to address section 37, a clause that has reinforced fears of discrimination against LGBT workers in religious-run institutions, particularly those employed in schools and hospitals.

Its retention on the Statute Book makes it even more difficult for employees to be open about their sexuality. This is reflected in research published jointly in 2007 by the Equality Authority and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which found the fear associated with section 37(1) has a significant, negative impact on lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers. The inclusion of this provision effectively forces teachers to avoid seeking employment in given sectors or to take up employment in conditions where they are compelled to conceal their sexuality. Removal of this provision will help to create a culture in schools in which homophobic bullying of teachers and students is no longer tolerated. If we are serious about combating homophobic bullying then we need to address section 37 and ensure no loophole remains in existing legislation that will allow discrimination in any shape or form. This is the society for which Ireland voted on 22 May. It is the Ireland that all of us in this House have a duty to reflect in the legislation we enact.

Debate adjourned.