DUBLIN — Last week, Ireland voted to repeal a constitutional ban on abortion. Almost before that epochal change can sink in, the government is taking steps to end another practice backed by the Catholic Church: a provision that gives preference in most of the country’s elementary schools to children who have been baptized.
Under a school admissions bill that passed the lower house of the Irish parliament this week, Catholic elementary schools would be barred from discriminating in favor of children of their own “religious ethos.” The bill still must pass the upper house this month, but most analysts expect it will be approved.
Under the existing system, the Roman Catholic Church controls 90 percent of Ireland’s public elementary schools, owning the property and appointing school boards and principals, even though the government pays the bills. Many non-Catholic parents, particularly in small towns and rural areas, find they have no choice but to send their children to local schools teaching Catholic faith formation.
And in years where the school intake is oversubscribed, a “baptism barrier” permits the school to refuse a place to a local non-Catholic child if a Catholic child — even one from outside the area — has applied for the same spot.
The policy is resented by parents who belong to smaller religious faiths, including many recent immigrants, and by the growing number of Irish parents who profess no faith at all. There have been numerous anecdotal reports in recent years of nonreligious parents baptizing their children merely so they can be sure of avoiding discrimination when it comes time for them to start school.
While 78.3 percent of Irish people identified themselves as Catholic in the last census in 2016, this was a decrease from 93 percent in 1926, and as Ireland grows more secular and liberal, strict religious observation has declined even more steeply.
The breadth of that change was evident last week, when two out of three voters supported a referendum repealing Ireland’s near-total ban on abortion, a constitutional prohibition that was approved by almost the same margin in 1983. In 2015, Ireland became the first western country to approve gay marriage by a popular vote.
In introducing the legislation to remove the “baptism barrier,” the minister for education and skills, Richard Bruton, cited recent figures showing that 20 percent of people of parenting age are now nonreligious, and that only 51 percent of Irish marriages in 2017 involved a Catholic ceremony.
“It is unfair that a local child of no religion is passed over in favor of a child of religion, living some distance away, for access to their local school,” he said. “Parents should not feel pressured to baptize their child to get access to their local school.”
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.
“We regard this as an issue of resources, not religion. If we had the space we would take Damien from ‘The Omen.’ We don’t want to keep anyone out of our schools,” Mr. Mulcrony said.
The difficulties of accommodating non-Catholic children in schools where Catholic faith formation is taught was a different issue from the baptism barrier, he said.
“Every pupil has the right not to attend religious formation. Sometimes we find people who are comfortable with some level of participation in the sacraments, and with others they want nothing to do with it at all, and we totally respect that.”
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