Religious discrimination claim by teacher who tussled with caretaker over school Virgin Mary statue is dismissed

Virgin Mary Statue

19 August 2021

A CARETAKER at a technical institute called a teacher a “disgrace” as the teacher attempted to remove a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the main entrance to the institute.

In the altercation from May 1, 2015, caretaker Noel Lonergan was tussling with computer science teacher and humanist, Fachtna Roe, over the statute that Mr Lonergan had erected as part of a May altar as part of its duties as caretaker at the Central Technical Institute (CTI) in Clonmel.

Mr Roe had previously complained to institute authorities in 2012 concerning the erection of the May altar at the location after he stated that he views the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a symbol associated with oppression, cruelty and humiliation of women and children.

He said that the statue has caused him “offence and upset”.

Concerning the May 2015 scuffle, Mr Roe told the Labour Court that he attempted to remove the statue as he viewed it as victimisation of him.

He stated that Mr Lonergan intervened to try to prevent the removal of the statue and the tussle and a heated verbal exchange ensued.

In his evidence at the Labour Court concerning the tussle, Mr Lonergan – now retired – stated that he asked Mr Roe to back away but he refused and Mr Lonergan was shoved backwards, hit himself off an object and sustained minor injuries to his neck and hand.

Mr Lonergan accepted that he was angry and stressed, and called Mr Roe “a disgrace” for which he is apologetic.

A teacher at the CTI, Jonathan Nolan broke up the row between the two and told the Labour Court that Mr Lonergan and Mr Roe appeared to be in a tussle over an object which they both had their hands on.

Mr Nolan said that he heard Mr Lonergan refer to Mr Roe as a “disgrace” as he fell backwards.

Mr Lonergan reported the matter to gardaí and gave a statement to them.

The details concerning the row and identity of the parties are contained in a Labour Court ruling in which the Labour Court deputy chairman, Alan Haugh, has dismissed a claim by Mr Roe that he was discriminated against, harassed and victimised on the grounds of religion by the Tipperary Education Training Board concerning the placement of a May altar containing a statue of the Virgin Mary at his place of work in May 2015.

The Labour Court report states that both Mr Roe and Mr Lonergan were subject to disciplinary proceedings concerning the May 2015 altercation.

Mr Haugh reports that Mr Roe didn’t participate in the proceedings, while no sanction was imposed on Mr Lonergan. Mr Haugh reports that Mr Roe was relocated to alternative teacher duties at Templemore, where he continues to work.

School principal at the time, Charlie McGeever, who is now retired, told the Labour Court that a physical altercation between two members of staff was of “grave concern” to him.

He stated that Mr Roe had been issued with a written warning which he didn’t appeal.

Mr Roe has first complained about the Blessed Virgin Mary statue in 2012 and school management relocated the May altar in a bid to diffuse the issue.

Mr Roe argued that the placement of the Blessed Virgin Mary statute in 2015 was being done to make him feel inferior as a humanist in his place of work.

Mr Roe argued that the statue represents Roman Catholic dogma and humanists oppose dogma.

In 2014, ashes were inadvertently distributed during one of Mr Roe’s classes on Ash Wednesday. Mr Roe lodged a complaint to the Equality Tribunal and this resulted in a mediated settlement between the parties on April 27, 2015 – a few days before the May 1, 2015, flashpoint.

Mr Roe also argued at the Labour Court that there is no place in a vocational school for religious dogma.

The institute argued that CTI is a multi-denominational school and has a Christian ethos and the placement of a May altar annually at the school – a practice that has endured for several decades – is carried out in the preservation of that ethos.

On Mr Roe’s claim for indirect discrimination, Mr Haugh – on behalf of the court – found that Mr Roe has not established any facts from which an inference of discrimination could be drawn in this case.

Mr Haugh also found that Mr Roe was not the subject of victimisation.

He stated that neither Mr McGeever nor Mr Lonergan displayed any animus or ill-will towards Mr Roe in their evidence – quite the contrary.

Mr Haugh also dismissed Mr Roe’s claim for harassment concerning the altercation with Mr Lonergan in May 2015.

Mr Haugh stated that it was Mr Roe who was, in fact, seeking to remove from view a symbol, which is an expression of religious belief to which he does not himself ascribe to.

Mr Haugh stated that Mr Lonergan took the course of action he did – although in retrospect he accepts that it was inappropriate and disproportionate – to prevent Mr Roe from interfering with an expression of faith by other members of the school community in CTI.

Dismissing Mr Roe’s claim that he was a victim of harassment, Mr Haugh stated that the claim is based on a mistaken understanding and application of the section of the Employment Equality Acts.

The Labour Court ruling after four days of evidence at “a virtual courtroom” upholds a 2017 ruling by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) where the parties were not named.

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