The Iona Institute is having a think about what is “discrimination” and what is “a religious exemption.”
There are currently calls to repeal Section 37 (1) of Ireland’s Employment Equality Act: the law’s opponents argue that it allows schools, hospitals and other organisations with a religious ethos to discriminate in their hiring against those whose lifestyles run counter to that ethos. The law’s defenders (the Iona Institute among them) usually respond that protecting the religious freedom of such organisations is essential.
But it strikes me that in both these cases there could be some confusion about what is actually meant by “discrimination” and “a religious exemption” on both sides. There seem to me to be two quite different things that those words could refer to, and most discussion of the issue seems to conflate them.
The first is a right to not hire people simply because they are a particular class of person (say if they’re gay or lesbian). This seems to me to be basically unconscionable – it has no rational basis, and denies the equal dignity of every person.
But I’m not at all sure that any significant number of religious organisations in Ireland actually want that right.
What religious organisations do want protected is the right to hire people who will uphold the ethos of the organisation. This is sometimes seen as a smokescreen for the prejudice described above, but in truth it’s completely different.
Take a faith school. Such a school should ask prospective teachers of any race, gender or sexual orientation the following question: “Can you, in good conscience, support and uphold the ethos of our school, which includes upholding Catholic teaching?” If they can do so, other concerns should be irrelevant.
Tricky, isn’t it. The trouble is with the word “school” and the word “teachers.”
If what they’re talking about is a real school and real teachers, then wanting to know if prospective teachers will uphold Catholic teaching really ought to be looking for the answer “no” – but they clearly are looking for a yes rather than a no. But in a real school with real teachers, “Catholic teachings” should be beside the point altogether. “Catholic teachings” should be confined to church. Health care should be secular – not atheist, just secular – and so should education.