Fintan O’Toole tells a story of priest-ridden Ireland and slightly less priest-ridden Belize.
In 2003, the Catholic diocese of Toledo fired a primary school teacher called Maria Roches because she was pregnant, not married, and therefore in breach of an obligation to live by “Jesus’s teaching on marriage and sex”. Ms Roches sued the diocese and the case went to the supreme court. The church cited, in support of its right to fire Roches, the 1985 Irish High Court case of Eileen Flynn. Ms Flynn was fired from her job at the Holy Faith school in New Ross for living with a man to whom she was not married. Judge Declan Costello sided with the nuns. He found, among other things, that they were “entitled to take into account that the appellant’s association [with the man] was carried on openly and publicly in a country town of quite a small population”; that Flynn’s conduct “would have been common knowledge in the town” and that pupils in the school “would regard her conduct as a rejection of the norms of behaviour and the ideals which the school was endeavouring to instil in and set for them”.
Yes doesn’t that sound Irish – the small town, the prying eyes, the warped ideas of what matters.
The church in Belize cited the Flynn case as sanction for the firing of Ms Roches. The chief justice of Belize, however, was sceptical to the point of open contempt for Ireland’s standing in these matters: “I must be cautious, this is a case from Ireland [and] we all know the position of Ireland on religious issues.” He was entirely unpersuaded by the argument that in schools supported by public funds, religious orthodoxy can take precedence over human rights and international law on non-discrimination. He found in favour of Ms Roches, not least on the grounds that Belize (like Ireland) is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and that it is patently discriminatory to fire women for getting pregnant while taking no action against men whose sexual conduct leaves less visible traces.
But that’s why – it’s only on the woman that it shows, and that’s why women have to be treated like shit while men get to go on their way rejoicing.
Seriously though, well done chief justice of Belize. Ireland? Not so fortunate.
It seemed pretty clear to the Belize chief justice that it is intolerable in a constitutional democracy to allow public employees, paid by the state, to be fired because their private lives do not conform to a particular church’s teaching. Yet in Ireland, the Eileen Flynn judgment is still the law of the land. It was written into legislation in section 37 of the Employment Equality Act of 1998, which says that any religious-run body (including most schools and many hospitals) can take any “action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution”. In practice, this includes living openly in any kind of sexual relationship (heterosexual or homosexual) that is not sanctioned by the church, or publicly advocating any policies (gay marriage, for example) that go against church teaching.
Also? If you want to be a teacher in Ireland you’d better sign up.
State-funded teacher training colleges are telling their students that their degrees will be of limited use unless they also take a diploma in “faith formation” for Catholic or Protestant schools. In effect, public universities are colluding in a system of open discrimination in which atheist, Muslim, or Orthodox would-be teachers have to sign up to become missionaries for faiths to which they do not belong if they are to be eligible to work in the bulk of taxpayer-funded teaching jobs.
It’s an uphill battle in Ireland.
Notice also that section 37 of the Employment Equality Act of 1998 applies to “many hospitals” – which would help to explain why Savita Halappanavar died of a miscarriage in a Galway hospital.