Equality Bill that ruffled feathers in Church schools may be tweaked

Some of the changes considered are the recruitment of teachers in Church schools, a clearer exception on religious symbols, and the possibility of a clause on conscientious objection

Archbishop Charles Scicluna at a church school visit: faith schools want to protect their rights to recruit teachers who profess their faith even when this might not be a genuine requirement
Archbishop Charles Scicluna at a church school visit: faith schools want to protect their rights to recruit teachers who profess their faith even when this might not be a genuine requirement

An Equality Bill that has ruffled feathers may be tweaked to allay fears expressed by Church schools over the recruitment of teachers, MaltaToday has learnt.

The Bill is currently at committee stage in parliament and debate on the contentious Clause 6 that deals with exceptions had been postponed during the last sitting in March.

“Equality Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Opposition MPs Claudette Buttigieg and Therese Comodini Cachia have been trying to find a compromise on the wording to allay fears expressed by Church schools and religious organisations,” sources close to the government told MaltaToday.

Concerns were reiterated recently by Church schools over an exception that is limited only to the recruitment of teachers of religion. The schools want the exception to go further to ensure that all recruitment reflects the Catholic ethos of the respective schools.

“There is a lot of misinformation and irrational fear out there but government is seeking some form of compromise that would still respect the core principles of the Bill to protect against discrimination of all kinds,” the sources said.

Some of the changes being considered target the recruitment of teachers in Church schools, a clearer exception to protect the display of religious symbols, and the possibility of including a clause on conscientious objection.

It remains unclear whether the government proposal will go far enough to address the concerns being raised though. MaltaToday is not privy to the legal wording.

The Equality Bill is aimed at stamping out discrimination of all kinds. It deals with issues such as denial of services and also recruitment, making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age, religious belief, state of health and other “protected characteristics”.

Clause 6 lists the exceptions that may apply and one of these is for the recruitment of teachers of religion, where an employer can insist that the choice of person depend also on the individual’s “beliefs, creed or religion”.

An Opposition amendment proposed last March wanted to extend this exception to the recruitment of all teachers employed by educational establishments whose ethos is based on belief, creed or religion.

During that meeting, the government argued that there was no reason why a Church school should discriminate against a teacher of mathematics if that person was an atheist because his personal belief was irrelevant to the subject being taught.

However, discussion on the matter was suspended, pending further exchanges between both sides.

Over the past couple of weeks, religious groups and Church schools have publicly expressed concern over the Equality Bill.

The Church Schools Association, the Secretariat for Catholic Education, the Council of Major Religious Superiors and representatives of parent organisations whose children attend Church schools, expressed “serious reservations” on the draft law.

They insisted that the proposed law was undermining freedom of religious belief with “dire consequences” on the expression of a Catholic ethos inherent in Church schools.

“Should this draft law not be amended, Catholic educators can be asked to promote values which go against their conscience,” the statement read.

Similar concerns were expressed by evangelical pastors.

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