Under the proposed law, religious minorities including Protestants, Muslims and Jews would be allowed to discriminate in the five percent of schools under their patronage, in order to preserve their distinct religious identities. The remaining five percent of state-funded elementary schools are multidenominational and would not be affected.
While addressing the baptism barrier, the new law has been criticized for leaving in place the dominant role of the Catholic Church in the schools. Children of minority faiths or no religion at all will still attend schools in which Roman Catholic prayer, religious instruction and Masses are still part of a normal school day, and where their fellow pupils will undergo lengthy preparations for rites like first confession and confirmation during school hours.
Paul Rowe, chief executive of the Educate Together Movement, which runs 82 multidenominational elementary schools, said that current arrangements in religious schools, which allow parents to opt out of religious classes for their children, are impossible to operate properly, particularly in smaller schools without the staff or space to accommodate them.
With many parents now seeking secular education for their children, Educate Together schools are often heavily oversubscribed, and many areas still do not have one.
Fiona Kenny, a nonobservant copywriter living in rural County Kildare, said she had to send her twins to the local Catholic school because the nearest Educate Together was 20 miles away. While the local school was warm and accommodating, difficulties often arose when her children were segregated from their peers during religious instruction.
“Religious activity can be peppered all through the day, but they also have to do half an hour of formal Catholic education every day. That’s two and a half hours a week where my kids have to go into another room with people supervising them. I used to get calls at work when there was a school Mass telling me to come and collect my children, because they couldn’t supervise them,” she said.
The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, which represents the 2,800 Irish elementary schools under Roman Catholic patronage, said that the new government bill was unnecessary, as in practice children are refused admission on the basis of their faith in only a small number of cases. Seamus Mulcrony, the group’s general secretary, said that its recent survey of schools in Dublin uncovered only 97 such incidents, which only occurred when schools were already oversubscribed.