A group of Labour Party backbenchers will publish their draft bill tomorrow but the Irish Examiner understands it should have the support of the two ministers who have been looking at the issue for almost a year.
Fianna Fáil senator Averil Power published a bill last May to change Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act that allows religious employers an exemption from its discrimination rules if it fires or refuses to hire someone in order to uphold its ethos. The section has been held for many years by unions as an obstacle to gay teachers being open about their sexual orientation, although there are no known cases of schools using the exemption available to them to fire anyone.
The proposed amendment will be published tomorrow by TDs Aodhán Ó Riordáin, John Lyons, Dominic Hannigan, and Ciara Conway, along with Senator Ivana Bacik. Ms Bacik is expected to get the bill onto the Seanad floor during private members’ time next week.
However, although it will have to be discussed at the Cabinet next Tuesday, a reliable source said Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn saw “considerable merit” in the planned legal changes.
Mr Shatter rejected the FF bill on the grounds that a consultation was needed on the constitutional issues, with arguments that personal rights had to be balanced with the rights of religious groups to uphold their ethos. This was to have been the topic of a consultation process by the proposed Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, but legislation to set up the new body has yet to be published.
The bill is expected to place a stronger level of responsibility on publicly funded organisations such as schools to uphold equality law. But at the same time, their right to uphold their ethos could be maintained by allowing exemptions to continue in relation to actions in the workplace, as distinct from the personal lives of staff.
At the launch of next week’s Stand Up! Awareness Week organised by young people’s group BeLonG To, Mr Quinn admitted it “looked really bad” to be moving against homophobic bullying in schools when Section 37 was still in operation.
“We are going to deal with that, we are 24 months into our term of office, there is another 36 months to go.
“I’ve been speaking to Alan Shatter about it because it falls within his remit, under his department,” he said.
“It is not that Mr Shatter is opposed to it, it is that he has other priorities. It still remains a priority for me. Homophobic bullying is toxic.”
Stand Up! campaign supporter Donal Óg Cusack said it was very disappointing that any school teacher, or anybody in any occupation, could be discriminated against because of their sexuality.
“There are enough things for young people to be worried about and their sexuality should not be one of these,” he said.
Niall Murray and Shaun Connolly