Can you opt out of religion as a Teacher?

Technically, yes… but it’s not that simple.

Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act states:

A religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes or whose objectives include the provision of services in an environment which promotes certain religious values shall not be taken to discriminate against a person for the purposes of [employment] if—

(a) it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution, or

(b) it takes action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.

The reality is that in order to teach in most Irish primary schools, you don’t have to be Catholic, but you have to pretend to be. 

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

A prospective teacher will generally be asked if they will be willing to uphold the religious ethos of a school on interview. They will also be expected to have a Certificate in Religious Studies, which prepares teachers in passing on the Catholic faith to children. Despite this, many teachers “slip through the cracks” but once they do, what awaits them? While technically a teacher is allowed to opt out of religion, very few, if any do. We asked schools whether they allow teachers to opt out from teaching religion.

Unsurprisingly fewer than 1% of schools have an opt out arrangement for their teachers.

As one school put it:

The situation has never arisen where a teacher wished to opt out

Schools that report to have an opt out arrangement for teachers

We asked schools if a teacher asked not to attend religious services, whether it would be an option.

9% of schools said "yes."

Interestingly, we asked schools if a teacher from a different background wished to be on the Board of Management as the teacher representative, 87.1% stated it wouldn’t be an issue. All members of a Board of Management have to agree to promote and uphold the ethos.

What next?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you can do because the law is clear in its language. While it is unlikely that you will lose a permanent position, there are several anecdotal reports from teachers who claim they were overlooked for promotion, etc. as a result of them not being the “correct” religion.

Your union is best placed to offer you advice in these matters. As of 2023, there is no official group for teachers from minority faiths and none. The INTO are willing to support a “support group” but so far teachers have stated that they don’t want a support group, they want action.

The truth is, unless teachers are brave enough to step up, nothing will change. However, it should not be the victims of discrimination that have to do the work, all teachers should stand up and ensure things change.