‘Perverse’, ‘archaic’, and unfair: law allowing religious discrimination against teachers blasted by Stormont Education Committee

4 March, 2021

An exemption to equality law allowing schools in Northern Ireland to employ teachers on religious grounds is ‘perverse’, ‘archaic’, and unfair, members of the Stormont’s Education Committee said yesterday. Northern Ireland Humanists – which campaigns for equal treatment of teachers regardless of religious background – welcomed the comments and said they show it is high time for the exemption to be scrapped.

The MLAs’ remarks were made during a presentation of evidence to the Committee about teacher exemption to the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (FETO) by Ulster University’s Dr Matt Milliken. Dr Milliken told the Committee that the exemption, which means that, unlike other employees, teachers can be denied a teaching position on the basis of their religion or belief, has ‘passed its sell-by date’.

Teachers in Catholic primary schools must have a certificate in teaching Catholic religious education, which is offered by default on Catholic teacher training courses – which are primarily attended by Catholic trainees – but is less available to students studying other courses, including those where the majority of the trainees are Protestant.

Dr Millikan went on to note that one of the key reasons that the law hadn’t been repealed was because of ‘protectionism of sectoral interests’. At present, the school system in Northern Ireland is deeply segregated, with the majority of children from Catholic families attending Catholic schools and the majority of children from Protestant families attending Controlled schools – which are de facto Protestant. Although there are a handful of more mixed Integrated schools, research published this year shows that they are largely inaccessible to most families.

Many of the MLAs present at the Committee meeting were deeply critical of the exemption. DUP MLA William Humphry, who highlighted the fact he is a ‘person of faith’, called discrimination in teacher employment ‘archaic’, going on to say, ‘I just don’t think it is acceptable in this day and age. I just do not think this is fair.’ UUP MLA Robbie Butler called the legislation ‘perverse’ and said it was ‘sad’ teachers are ‘so segregated’ in 2021. Committee Chair and Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle commented that he was ‘profoundly uncomfortable’ with the appointment of teachers by faith. And SDLP MLA Justin McNulty added that he was ‘disgusted’ by the law. Pat Sheehan MLA of Sinn Féin also said he was against the exemption and wanted the four main churches to comment on the issue.

Similar exemptions to employment law also exist for teachers that faith schools in Britain, through the Equality Act 2010 – something Humanists UK has long campaigned to change.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘The law that allows schools to discriminate against teachers purely on the basis of their religion or belief is not only outdated and unfair, but serves to exacerbate the segregation that is already endemic in Northern Ireland’s school system. The comments made by the Education Committee illustrate that this view is shared across political and religious lines and that it is high time this discriminatory exemption was scrapped.

‘Northern Ireland is about to undergo a wide-ranging independent review of the education system and it seems highly likely that this will mark a move towards a single education system. In this context, religious discrimination against teachers will become even more untenable than it is now.’


For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at boyd@humanists.uk or phone 02890 029946.

Watch the Education Committee meeting.

Read our most recent article on why integrated schools are an ‘illusory’ choice for many families in Northern Ireland.

Read our article on the independent Northern Ireland education review set to consider ‘single education system’.

Read our article on how teacher training reinforces educational division in Northern Ireland.

Read our article on the DUP MLA who says all schools should be integrated.

Read more about our work on schools and education.

Read more about our work on faith schools.

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.