An Irish teacher union has condemned "sectarian" government proposals to give churches a religious veto on appointments in the majority of primary and secondary schools.
The Irish education system has an unusually high percentage of church-owned schools - more than 90 per cent of primaries while far more than half the secondaries are owned by religious orders or bishops.
The Catholic bishops have agreed to surrender majority control of primary school boards of management in return for guarantees about the ethos and the future of their schools - the Protestant bishops are expected to follow suit.
The full implications of these guarantees were revealed when a newspaper disclosed details of a paper from education minister Niamh Bhreathnach to the cabinet.
It set out draft legislation and explained the forthcoming Bill. It said that schools must be allowed to promote a particular ethos, including a denominational ethos. "For this reason the patrons of the schools are to be granted substantial powers. These powers are intended to enable the patron to guarantee the ethos of the schools and include the nomination boards of management members, the dissolution of boards and the appointment of staff. "
It added that the Attorney General had advised that the denominational schools have the right to insist staff were from their particular denomination.
While the boards would normally be responsible for staff appointment the Bills would give school owners the power to intervene in two ways.
They could insist on teachers having a particular religion for a particular subject. This was intended for the appointment of teachers of religion in secondary schools but the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said it was phrased in such a way that it could be used to block primary school appointments where the curriculum is integrated.
Greater alarm was caused by a proposal to allow owners to block appointments of teachers of other religions if they prejudiced the ethos and denominational character of their schools. It added a balance would have to be found between the rights of denominational schools and teachers' right to be protected against invidious or unreasonable discrimination.
The leak could not have come at a worse time for the education minister who was attending the annual conference of the INTO in Belfast where the proposals were immediately condemned as sectarian. Other organisations similarly condemned the proposals and they have caused some unease among government supporters.
The forthcoming legislation would set up 10 regional education boards. The draft legislation shied away from saying that education boards would have to agree before religion could be a factor in patrons objecting to an appointment. This approach was dropped as it was "likely to amount to an excessive interference by a state body".
The proposal said if patrons objected to an appointment they must inform the education boards: "This would allow the boards to exercise restraint on patrons and act where a patron is considered to be overstepping the bounds of reasonableness."
However, the minority government party, Democratic Left, wants boards to have more than an informal influence. Its leader, Prionnsias De Rossa, minister for social welfare, said he did not want to see untrammelled powers for patrons. He said the rights of patrons would have to be balanced with other constitutional principles, such as freedom of conscience and expression and the right to privacy so any appointment or promotion where denomination was a factor would have to be justifiable to the relevant education board.