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Speech by Senator Averil Power, Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill 2012

I welcome the Minister to the House and also welcome representatives from GLEN, INTO, ASTI, TUI, BelongTo, TENI, Gay Doctors Ireland and Ógra Fianna Fáil to the public gallery.

We are here this afternoon to deal with an issue of major concern to each of these groups – that is the threat posed to thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other employees by Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act.

Let me say at the outset that in proposing this bill I am genuinely hoping that we can reach cross-party consensus on it. Tackling injustice and promoting human rights is something that we should all be united on.

As many of you know since I first proposed this bill I have endeavored to do everything I can to build that cross-party support for it.

I have engaged with the other political parties and with independents. And I have made clear from the start that I am prepared to work with any member on any amendment that they feel will make the bill more effective. In fact I gave a commitment to Senators on the other side of the House that amendments would be tabled at committee stage to address the issues of gender and family status.

I had originally planned to bring the bill into the House two months ago but I agreed to hold off at the request of the Government side to allow time to consult and collaborate on it.

But now we must move on as this is an issue of immediate and pressing concern to so many people.

As members will be aware, under the equality legislation, it is generally illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee or potential employee on a range of grounds including gender, civil status, family status and sexual orientation. 

However, S37(1) of the 1998 Act provides an exemption for religious, educational or medical institutions which are under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes.

It is widely considered that this section could be used to justify discrimination against an employee simply because they are LGBT, separated, divorced, cohabiting outside marriage or an unmarried mother.

Some people will say this is a hypothetical problem or that in this day and age such discrimination, legal as it could be, couldn’t possibly be taking place on the ground.

Yet this week we learned of an investigation by the Children’s Ombudsman into a Catholic school which refused to enroll a 16 year old girl on the grounds that she was pregnant. Citing his duty to protect the “honorable majority” of his pupils, the principal stated that the school should not be blamed for having – and I quote -a “moral code”.

Now if such prejudice can lead to young mother being denied the chance to finish school then I have no doubt that it can also lead to a teacher being denied employment or a promotion.

Let us be clear that as we sit here people are at any immediate risk and that putting this issue on the long finger will leave them vulnerable.

Certainly, the GLEN and the teacher unions all believe that S37(1) of the Employment Equality Act is causing real problems for LGBT teachers.

GLEN states that as a result of this provision, “employees or prospective employees, whose lives may possibly be interpreted to be contrary to the religious ethos of some religions, have lived in fear for their jobs and their prospects within their employment.” They acknowledge that no case has been taken under the Act but point out that it serves as a ‘chill factor’ for LGBT teachers.

Employees and potential employees of religious-run hospitals are in the same position.

According to Dr Leslie Hannon of Gay Doctors Ireland, “the weight of laws like these impress upon gay doctors the type of self-censorship and ‘discretion’ that enable and propagate homophobia in general, simply because they serve to downsize us and make us invisible”.

Of course there are many gay teachers and doctors working in our schools and hospitals at present. But unfortunately too many of them feel the need to hide something as intrinsically important as who it is they fall in love with from their colleagues.

I would like to give just one example of such a teacher.

Mary works in a Catholic primary school.

She has been working in the same school for the past twenty years.

She is a great teacher; her pupils love how she makes every lesson interesting. Parents are impressed by how well their children are doing in her classroom. The school principal appreciates how she is always willing to go above and beyond the call of duty and help out with after-school activities. And she does a great job of preparing her class for their Communion day.

Mary loves teaching. In fact it’s all she ever wanted to do.

But she has never been fully comfortable at school. Instead, she lives with the constant fear of her colleagues finding out that she is a lesbian.

This fear emanates from the fact that her employer could use Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Acts to justify discrimination against her by claiming that her sexual orientation is a threat to her school’s religious ethos.

She hopes they would never do this but she feels it would be safer not to test them.

So when other teachers talk to each other about their families and what they did at the weekend, Mary is very quiet in the staff room. She makes a point of only socialising with her long-term partner outside the town that she works in. And while herself and Susan would love to enter a civil partnership to celebrate their love and commitment to each other, she feels that this isn’t an option as it would become public knowledge.

Mary is determined that her colleagues will only learn of her relationship with her partner when she brings Susan to her retirement party.

Over the past couple of months, I have received emails from many teachers like Mary welcoming this Bill.

All of them make the same point - They don’t want any special treatment. They just want to be judged on the same basis as everyone else – on their effectiveness in the classroom, rather than on someone else’s perception of their private lives. This bill will ensure that happens.

Freedom of religion is an important constitutional value and one that I fully respect.

However, it should not be used to permit discrimination which would unacceptable and illegal in any other employment, especially by institutions that are state-funded.

And it should not be allowed to significantly reduce job opportunities for an entire group of people.

With 96 per cent of schools under denominational management, the current position represents a completely unfair interference with LGB teachers’ constitutional right to earn a livelihood. It also represents an intolerable infringement of their basic rights as human beings.

This Bill is designed to address this injustice.

It proposes to amend Section 37(1) of the 1998 Act to ensure that institutions such as schools and hospitals will no longer be permitted to treat staff or potential staff differently simply because of their sexual orientation or marital/civil status.

If the Bill is enacted, religious-run institutions will still be entitled to insist that staff members demonstrate respect towards their ethos in the workplace and not actively seek to undermine it. But they won’t be able to dismiss, discriminate against or refuse to hire people just because they don’t approve of their private lives.

It was deliberately drafted to achieve an appropriate and constitutionally proportionate balance between the right of an institution to uphold its ethos and the rights of the individual teacher.

To that end, it was drafted with the implications of Article 44 of Bureacht na hÉireann and its associated case law in mind.

The Bill has been strongly endorsed by GLEN, who have called on the Government to support it. 

It has also been welcomed by the INTO Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Group, whose chairman Cathal O’Riada has said that removing the ability for schools to discriminate would be an “enormous and immediate relief” for LGB teachers.

Representatives from the ASTI and TUI also addressed a briefing session for Senators and TDs on the bill in Leinster House in February and urged Members to support it.

At the same session, a representative from BelongTo spoke of the impact that discrimination against gay teachers has on young people by forcing teachers to hide their true identities and robbing young LGBT students of positive role models.

The Bill has also been strongly welcomed by Gay Doctors Ireland.

Fianna Fáil has taken the initiative in putting forward this bill. Personally I believe that as a republican party we must be committed to fighting discrimination in all forms.

But let me be clear I don’t think this should be a party-political issue.

The bill is in line with a commitment in the Programme for Government. And it is in keeping with the progressive approach that Minister Ruairí Quinn has taken to the issue of tackling homophobic bullying in schools.

If we all agree on the principle for tackling this discrimination, then we need to send this bill to committee where we can work together to agree on a final wording.

On an issue this important, all parties should be willing to put aside their differences and send out a united message.

This bill addresses a genuine fear held by citizens of the State about whether they can go about their lives free from the threat of discrimination. It is not a hypothetical problem. It is a real issue which today we have the opportunity to change before another school year starts.

I hope that the bill will receive cross-party support this evening and that we can all collaborate to have a final text passed through both Houses of the Oireachtas and enacted into law as soon as possible.

 

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