01 October 2007
‘Hypocrisy’ criticism on same sex laws
By Niall Murray, Education Correspondent
THE Equality Authority has accused the Government of hypocrisy over its commitment to same sex couples when it refuses to change laws that allow schools to fire gay teachers. A section of the 1998 Employment Equality Act gives schools and other religious-run institutions exemption from discrimination laws where it takes action to prevent an employee from undermining its religious ethos. The issue has been a matter of concern for teachers in recent years, particularly at primary level where more than nine out of 10 schools are run by the Catholic Church and other religious denominations.
Equality Authority chief executive Niall Crowley said it remains unclear how severe the interpretation of the act might be unless a case is taken to the Equality Tribunal or the courts, challenging its use. “We already know that it’s a strong dissuasive influence on gay and lesbian people from taking cases and, therefore, whether or not they’re raising the issue, it must be changed,” he said. “The Programme for Government makes a commitment to rights for same sex couples but that commitment means nothing for people who work in schools or other religious institutions,” said Mr Crowley. He said all that was needed was a simple amendment to clarify that the section of the act cannot be used to discriminate against someone on grounds of family status or sexual orientation. However, he said, the Government has already overlooked this recommendation when it amended part of the legislation in the 2004 Equality Act. A spokesperson for the Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Teachers group, set up in the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, said: “The law copper-fastens discrimination but it could equally affect teachers who are divorced or who are not married but living with a partner because their lifestyle could be in conflict with the church’s teaching.” “It’s easier now for a student to talk about being gay but a teacher can’t do so. If the Government introduces civil partnerships I would marry my partner of more than 20 years, but if I seek leave from work to do so my job could be at risk,” said the woman, who teaches in a small rural school. The matter was raised at the Irish Vocational Education Association annual congress last week, where a delegate asked if it is realistic for teachers to expect adequate protection from equality legislation if they come out about their sexuality. “In more than 30 years of teaching, I’ve only ever heard three female students say they were lesbian and never yet heard a male student say they were gay. But I never expect to hear a teacher tell colleagues they are gay or lesbian,” he said.