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Northern Ireland must scrap ‘unacceptable’ faith-based teacher discrimination law, say MLAs

TAKE ACTION: Live in Northern Ireland? Give your support to the Bill to remove faith-based exemptions to fair employment law by completing MLA Chris Lyttle’s consultation. The deadline for responses is 10 June 2021. 

MLAs have unanimously passed a motion asking the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ‘urgently’ bring forth legislation to end faith-based school employment discrimination in Northern Ireland. The motion called for legislation to repeal an exemption to equality law that allows schools to choose which teachers they employ on religious grounds. Northern Ireland Humanists briefed MLAs from various parties about the problems the exemption causes. It has today welcomed the vote.

Following a debate in the Assembly earlier this week, MLAs voted in favour of the motion calling for the exception to the law – known as the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (FETO) – to be scrapped. This followed a March meeting of the Education Committee where members from various political parties called the discrimination faced by teachers ‘perverse’, ‘archaic’ and unfair. Last month, First Minister Arlene Foster also said that the exemption ‘needs to be dealt with’. And Education Committee Chair and Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle is now planning to bring a private members’ bill on the matter.

The motion was introduced by UUP MLA Robbie Butler. It says it is ‘unacceptable that teachers should be excluded from protection from discrimination in employment on the grounds of religious belief’. Mr Butler also called the teacher exemption ‘an archaic and unfair barrier to fair employment for teachers across our diverse community’. His view was supported by Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, who said ‘an exemption from fair employment legislation is not the platform that should be used for nurturing any ethos in any school.’ Mr Sheehan also highlighted strong support for scrapping the exemption from teaching unions. For example, in April the NASUWT voted ‘overwhelmingly’ to lobby the Northern Ireland Assembly to remove the exemption. This mirrored the action of two other teaching unions, the NUT and ATL – which have now merged to become the NEU – which previously adopted policies against similar discrimination which is actually permitted across the UK.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘Teaching jobs should only ever be allocated on the basis of ability, not religious belief. The unanimous vote in favour of this motion provides yet more evidence that most of the Assembly agrees.

‘Given the widespread support to abolish this outdated, unfair discrimination, the Northern Ireland Executive has no excuse not to take action. It must immediately take steps to end this discrimination and give teachers the same rights as other employees.’


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

Read the Official Report from the Assembly session.

Respond to the consultation on scrapping the teacher exemption.

Read our most recent article on the First Minister saying faith-based teacher discrimination law ‘needs to be dealt with’.

Read our article on the bill to scrap faith-based discrimination against teachers.

Read our article on teachers’ union NASUWT voting to end Northern Ireland teacher discrimination.

Read our article on Stormont Education Committee blasting ‘perverse’, ‘archaic’ and ‘unfair’ exemptions to equality law for teachers.

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

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.

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