The exemption of teachers from fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland could be scrapped if a proposal made in private members’ bill is taken forward.
Teachers in the country are currently exempt from protections against discrimination on religious grounds under the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, as “the essential nature of the job requires it be done by a person holding, or not holding, a particular religious belief”.
The exemption allows schools to use religious background or belief in deciding which teachers to recruit – including checking whether they are Protestant or Catholic.
In 2019 Ulster University research suggested that relatively few Protestant teachers are employed in Catholic schools, and vice-versa.
The law has long been criticised – including by the country’s equality watchdog, teacher bodies and the clergy – but a private members’ bill put forward by assembly member Chris Lyttle is seeking to remove the exemption and give teachers full employment rights.
Earlier this month, Geraldine McGahey, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission, told the Stormont Executive Office Committee that teachers should receive the same protections as those in other professions.
“We firmly believe that all teachers should be able to enjoy the same legislative protection as other workers and should also be included in the monitoring and review requirements as are other occupations,” she said.
“If the exception was removed, like other employers, schools would no longer be able to lawfully discriminate on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion on the appointment of teachers in schools.”
Karen Jardine from the Transferor Representatives’ Council (TRC), which represents Protestant churches and makes nominations for governors in controlled schools, said the TRC supported further equality of opportunity for teacher recruitment and opposed to selection based on religion “unless the nature of the job requires it to be done by a person holding, or not holding, a particular religious belief”.
She said: “One of the questions for the committee to consider is, if the veto exemption is removed, in what way can a board of governors ensure that those employed by the school will work to uphold that school’s ethos?”
The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) has indicated that the law is now outdated and needs changing.
“Things have moved on,” said CCMS chief executive Gerry Campbell. “We do believe that the landscape has totally changed, it’s a different world we live in now from 1976 [when the law was introduced] and indeed from 1998.”