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Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn have both appeared before the Seanad this week to discuss issues to do with the rights of denominational schools. Both men showed an awareness of the need to not simply trample over religious freedom rights.
Ruairi Quinn was commenting on the report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. That report makes recommendations that would severely curtail the right of denominational schools to be meaningfully denominational.
Quinn acknowledged that it was unreasonable to expect the Church to hand over some of its schools while also expecting the remaining schools to heavily compromise their ethos.
He told the Seanad: “It is unreasonable for people - myself included - to want the Catholic church to voluntarily and in an orderly manner divest itself of churches [he obviously meant schools here] which it owns, albeit paid for in many cases by the taxpayer and located on church or religious grounds, so that we can accommodate other demands in terms of gaelscoileanna and at the same time to tell it, in respect of its stand-alone schools, that its hands must be tied behind its back.
“That is my own personal view. It is not what is stated in the report. I would welcome a debate on this issue. I do not believe we will get agreement from the Catholic community on the divesting of schools if it believes it is to be curtailed in terms of how it celebrates and teaches Catholicism to its own community.”
Alan Shatter addressed his comments to a private member’s bill proposed by Senator Averil Power that seeks to amend Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act so as to allow openly gay teachers to work in denominational schools.
Shatter said he believe the bill would not pass constitutional muster.
He stated: “The test the Oireachtas faces when it legislates in this area is whether it has preserved a proper balance between the rights of religious denominations to manage their own affairs and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and the rights of other citizens to equality before the law and to earn their livelihood.
“The courts have enunciated this test. It is important that we consider the relevant constitutional case law. In their case law, the courts have endorsed the proposition that occasions arise when it is necessary to make distinctions in order to give life and reality to the constitutional guarantee of the free profession and practice of religion.”
These are first nuanced comments I can recall in a long time from any Government Minister on the issue of religious freedom and competing rights and how we can best arrive at a proper accommodation between them.
Is it too much to hope that a sophisticated debate on these matters can now get underway without the religious view simply being shouted down?