A proposal to end the ability of Catholic schools in Ireland to give preference to Catholic children is causing fears over the increasing secularization of society in the majority-Catholic country.

Unlike in the United States, the government funds religious schools in Ireland, and about 96 percent of elementary schools in the country are under the patronage of a religious group, and approximately 90 percent of these schools are run by the Catholic Church.

In some areas of the country – mostly in and around the capital Dublin – there are more students seeking places in certain Catholic schools than are available. These ‘oversubscribed’ schools can choose students belonging to the school’s denomination over students who live closer to the campus.

Last year, Ireland’s Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced plans to prohibit Catholic primary schools – but not schools from minority denominations such as the (Anglican) Church of Ireland – from giving priority to students based upon their religion.

According to a statement from the Ministry for Education, Bruton argues it is “unfair that preference is given by publicly-funded religious schools to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of children of a different religion or of no religion who live close to the school.”

Although the government is presenting this as guaranteeing a child’s right to an education, others see it as a sign of a growing secularization of Irish society.

“The core problem in all of this is that people believe that if you take religion out of schools, schools are then neutral. But they’re not neutral, because there is always a belief system involved in the schools,” said Patrick Treacy, a lawyer belonging to Faith in Our Schools, an interdenominational group supporting the freedom of religious schools.

“I draw a distinction between the term secular and secularist. I believe in every constitutional democracy, it must be secular: That is, that competing versions of the good and the role of religion must co-exist and mutually support and respect each other. That’s the secular perspective. The secularist perspective is that there is no place for religion in public life: No place for religion in schools, no place for religion in public debate,” Treacy told Crux.

The Republic of Ireland was once known as the most Catholic country in Western Europe, but more and more people are describing themselves as having no religion.

Currently, just over 78 percent of the population describes itself as Catholic, a sharp decline from the 84 percent who said they were Catholic in 2011. Of that number, less than 30 percent attend Mass every week; it was over 87 percent just 20 years ago.

Revelations about clerical sexual abuse has led to much of this decline, and to a less deferential position towards the Church from the government.

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In 2011, the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the “historic relationship between church and state in Ireland could not be the same again. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation.”

The most striking example of the loss of Church influence was in 2015, when Ireland held a referendum on same-sex marriage in which 62 percent of the voters backed changing the constitution to allow the practice.

(The government is now preparing another referendum to strike down the constitution’s protections for the unborn, allowing legalized abortion in the country.)

Treacy told Crux the same lobby groups which pushed for same-sex marriage are now supporting changing the law on how Catholic schools can select their pupils.

“There is a very definite overlap – not just in personnel but in modus operandi – of advocates for marriage equality, as it’s so-called, and for education equality,” he said.

“The problem is, everyone is in favor of equality, and equality is a fundamental Christian principle, but what the secularists are arguing is a principle of absolute equality. What I mean is, equality must be balanced with freedom and with responsibility,” Treacy continued.

Behind the scenes, the Catholic school establishment in Ireland has been vigorously opposing the proposal.

Using Ireland’s Freedom of Information Act, The Irish Times accessed the submission to the government from several affected Catholic institutions.

The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association suggested the government was opening itself to lawsuits “If the substance of the proposal is to effectively preclude parents in violation of their conscience from sending a child to a school of their choice, it would be very difficult to uphold the constitutionality of such a legislative choice.”

The Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools said the proposal “appears to be part of a process of encroachment on parental rights, property rights and the capacity of faith schools to provide a faith-based education for those who opt for same.”

However, other Church officials have been less adamant in their opposition. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has suggested the Church divest itself of some of its schools, while the Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, said he wasn’t “married” to the idea of preferential access of Catholics to the Church’s schools.

Martin has noted the problem is not pressing, and only exists in small pockets in the country.

Treacy said the discussion over school places is clouding the real issue, which is whether Ireland will have a pluralistic school system, or entirely secularist schools.

“We have to work towards a vision which is pluralistic, not a vision that is secularist, because a vision which is secularist effectively is uniform, and imposes a non-faith belief system on all children,” he said. “It is an imposition of a particular value system – a secularist, liberal value system – upon everyone, and it’s not neutral.”