‘Unacceptable’ to stop Church school teachers expressing religious views – UPE

UPE teachers union wants changes to Equality Bill, MUT yet to pronounce itself officially

The Equality Bill protects prospective applicants for a job in a Church-run school when faith plays no part as a genuine requirement in the subject they teach
The Equality Bill protects prospective applicants for a job in a Church-run school when faith plays no part as a genuine requirement in the subject they teach

One of Malta’s teacher unions has said it was “unacceptable” that the proposed Equality Bill could deny Church school teachers the right to express their religious views during lessons.

The Union of Professional Educators claims the law, which makes it illegal to deny a service or recruitment on the basis of religious belief, would disallow Church school teachers from promoting Catholic values during all lessons other than religious studies.

The Equality Bill, which is currently in committee stage in Parliament, 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”.

But the Bill has raised controversy over provisions that prohibit faith schools from refusing to recruit teachers who do not follow the Catholic faith – even when teaching subjects not concerned with the faith – with the only exception being the hiring 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.

In comments to MaltaToday, UPE executive head Graham Sansone refuted the claim that Church schools’ main source of grievance was the fact that they would not be able to refuse employment to someone because of their faith. “Church schools have never had any issues with employing non-believers. In fact, there are many Church schools that employ Muslim, Hindu and even atheist educators to teach various subjects. Obviously, religion as a subject needs to be taught by a Catholic believer,” Sansone said.

“The Church never had any issues with employing divorced, separated or even LGBTIQ+ educators. The UPE sees that Church schools have a positive track record in this regard.”

The problem, Sansone said, was that the law would prevent teachers from making religious observations while teaching classes other than the religion lesson. “Educators will not be allowed to express their religious views during lessons, apart from the sole exception of religious studies as a subject. This is unacceptable… especially when we are talking about Church school employees, who should be allowed to follow the school ethos and pass on God’s teachings in the day-to-day life of their students,” he said.

Sansone also said the law would restrict educators from their right to conscientious objection. “The Equality Bill should allow church schools to practice their own ethos as well as give all educators the right to conscientious objection.”

MaltaToday also asked the Malta Union of Teachers for its views on the issue, but a union spokesperson referred this newspaper to consultation taking place with members. No official position has yet been communicated.

The MUT however appeared reluctant to release a comment, with attempts to reach MUT president Marco Bonnici on Friday for more detailed insight having been unsuccessful. “The MUT has been following the discussion regarding the equality bill. It is vague in a number of aspects, giving rise to interpretations which may impact the conditions of work of educators,” MUT said.

The MUT said it will be meeting the respective ministries in the coming days to provide its feedback.

The Bill might yet be tweaked in light of the fears express by Church schools.

Equality Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Opposition MPs Claudette Buttigieg and Therese Comodini Cachia have been trying to find a compromise on the wording used, government 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.