Government plans to ban oversubscribed Catholic schools from favouring Catholic applicants over non-Catholic ones may be unconstitutional, and are likely to be challenged in the courts, a leading expert on the Constitution has warned.
Explaining that Irish law allows justifiable and proportionate discrimination in certain circumstances, UCC’s Dr Seán Ó Conaill told The Irish Catholic, adding that he doubted such a case could credibly be made for the Government’s plans.
“They could come up with some justification for that, but in cold hard terms, it’s very hard to see how they can say ‘just the Catholic Church and no other Churches’,” he said, adding that there would definitely be “arguable case” against any such move. “You’d imagine somebody would take the case – that’d be very interesting,” he said.
His comments come in the aftermath of legislation to remove the so-called “baptism barrier” on schools admission being passed by the Dáil. Minister for Education Richard Bruton has said the provision in the Education (Admission to Schools) would remove baptism as a requirement for school entry from most schools, retaining it only where a child of a minority needs access to a school of their ethos.
The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association has said that fewer than 0.4% of all applications received by Dublin schools are refused on religious grounds, with the real problem facing Irish schools being a lack of resources.
“It’s a game of bluff, and the real question is how could they enforce it? They can say they’re removing the baptismal barrier, but they don’t own these schools,” Dr Seán Ó Conaill said.
“One of the most annoying things we see right across the media is the line about removing the Church from State schools: we don’t have State schools. Our country was bankrupt – it couldn’t afford schools, so it relied on predominantly the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland to provide schools for us,” he continued, explaining that Church bodies own school lands and the schools themselves, as well as running their schools.
The only real way the State could enforce the proposed rule is by threatening to withdraw funding, but if Church-owned schools held their ground in such a situation, “the entire education system would collapse overnight”.