Landmark new law tackles religious discrimination against teachers in Northern Ireland

14 May, 2024

This week marks a historic shift in Northern Ireland as the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Act officially came into force, ending the long-standing exemption from general employment laws that allowed religious discrimination against all school teachers. Northern Ireland Humanists have welcomed this legislation as a hugely positive step forward that fosters a more inclusive and diverse educational environment.

Religious schools across the United Kingdom are allowed to discriminate against teachers on the grounds of religion, meaning those of no or the ‘wrong’ religion can be denied employment or promotion. This had been justified in Northern Ireland on the basis that all schools are required to provide Christian religious instruction and daily acts of Christian worship. This approach not only perpetuates community division but also restricts educational opportunities and career prospects. A recent study found that just 2% of teachers in Catholic-maintained primary schools are from a Protestant background and 7% of those in state-controlled (what are considered de facto Protestant) primary schools are from a Catholic background.

Northern Ireland Humanists has long advocated for the removal of these exemptions as part of a broader effort to ensure that all aspects of schooling – from staffing to curriculum – are free from religious discrimination.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘Today represents a monumental step towards true equality in our education system. Teachers are the backbone of education and must be selected based on capability and not religious affiliation. This change not only supports teachers but also benefits all students by promoting inclusion and diversity.’

The change means that Northern Ireland has now leapfrogged the rest of the UK, where under education and equality laws, religious schools can still require all of their teachers to share the faith of the school. This is out of step with retained EU law, which only allows such discrimination where a genuine occupational requirement (GOR) can be demonstrated. That means that a school which discriminates beyond GOR is breaking UK law, but the difference between different laws means that that isn’t being enforced.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Lewis Young said:

‘Amazingly, Northern Ireland has now leapfrogged Britain in how much religious discrimination is permitted against teachers. The governments of England, Scotland, and Wales should act to mirror Northern Ireland’s move.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at or phone 07918 975795.

Read about the introduction of the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill. 

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 over 120,000 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.