Religious ethos exemption: a licence to discriminate

I'll call her Lily. She's a qualified language support teacher - a skill that is desperately needed in Ireland's schools today, given the large numbers of immigrant children from non-Anglophone countries. Lily loves her work and she's good at it. But she can't get a job. Why not? Well, because she lives in a small village in rural Ireland, where some of the locals just aren't used to people like Lily - dark-skinned and with a foreign (albeit native-English) accent.

The last time that Lily applied for a job, she was turned down without even being interviewed. She later discovered that the successful applicant was far less qualified than she. But he was a native. She filed a FOI request to find out why she wasn't considered. The response made reference to the need to protect the school's "religious ethos". In other words, the school looked at her details, deduced from her ethnic background that she is not a Catholic, and decided not to shortlist her.

And this is perfectly legal, because Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 allows denominational schools to discriminate against potential employees who are not of the school's religion.

Once again, Lily is a language support teacher. She wouldn't even be teaching religion. How could her mere presence undermine the school's religious ethos? And without having given her an interview, how could they be certain that she wasn't a Catholic in any case?

It seems quite clear to me that in this case the religious ethos exemption was merely an excuse for the school to discriminate against a person of a foreign/minority ethnic background. With increasing numbers of immigrants in the workforce, the likelihood of this being an isolated incident seems slim.

The need for language support teachers in our schools is pressing - far too pressing to allow the exclusion of qualified people on spurious religious grounds. The law needs to be changed urgently. Not only for the sake of Lily and others like her, but for the children, who need teachers who know what they're doing far more than they need people who happen to fit an idealised cultural stereotype.


click here said...


As you say, "Once again, Lily is a language support teacher. She wouldn't even be teaching religion. How could her mere presence undermine the school's religious ethos?"

Aside from whether or not they've established she's a Catholic, I think the above point is crucial here: As far as I'm aware, schools and institutions bear the burden of showing that the religious ethos has been undermined.

I think your friend should contact the Equality Authority ( and see if she has grounds to take a case to the Equality Tribunal. Under the Employment Equality Acts, the interview process, etc. is included, so complainants need not already be employees. (It's also not too expensive for people to take a case, so not too much is at stake if people go ahead with it.)

She should definitely consider it; some of the work has already been done with the FOI request.

Wednesday said...

She has actually just gone to the Equality Tribunal - hopefully she'll get somewhere.
Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Go for it, Lily!

Anonymous said...

I'm working on it. I'm working on it. I've actually got a job now and it's the same scene, only now it's racial AND religion.

Ugh. This is 2007. This should not be so difficult!!

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