The bill, which follows years of discussions, seeks to devolve power from the Education Ministry to school boards of management and to 10 regional education boards. It obliges all schools to establish boards which would have equal representation of parents, teachers, school owners and the wider community.
The Churches are willing to agree to this model but say that the bill diminishes their role in guaranteeing the ethos of their schools. They have obtained legal advice which indicates that the bill is unconstitutional because it takes away their rights as owners of the schools.
The advice also suggests that a threat in the bill to freeze state funding to schools that refuse to set up approved boards of management is unconstitutional. A leaked legal opinion prepared for the Catholic bishops suggests that even the powers sought by the minister to prepare a core curriculum could be unconstitutional if it, for instance, sought to introduce sex education into schools.
The bishops issued a statement saying that the bill would introduce a level of state control which was never envisaged by the Irish constitution. The minister for education Niamh Bhreathnach was proposing to regulate in considerable detail virtually all aspects of the education system, particularly the Church-linked schools.
"It is our conviction, therefore, that if the bill becomes law it will result in the creation of a system of education which is not consistent with the religious and cultural values of the vast majority of Irish people," they added.
Meanwhile, the Dail was adjourned in uproar recently when opposition parties demanded more time to discuss the bill before it goes to committee stage. Political sources expect substantial amendments from the minister at the committee stage as she is known to be anxious that the bill be enacted before the forthcoming general election.