Monday, September 05, 2022

Aodhan O'Faolain

A teacher who objects to addressing a student with the pronoun “they” has been jailed over his refusal to comply with a temporary injunction preventing him from attending or teaching at the secondary school where he is employed.

Mr Justice Michael Quinn ordered that Enoch Burke be committed to Mountjoy Prison until he agrees to obey an order not to attend at or attempt to teach any classes at Wilson’s Hospital School in Co Westmeath, which suspended him from his position as a teacher of History and German.

The order was granted after the school’s lawyers told the court that Mr Burke was not complying with both the terms of his paid suspension and an ex-parte temporary injunction requiring him to stay away from the school.

The judge said Mr Burke must remain incarcerated until he purges his contempt and agrees to comply with the injunction secured by the school last week.

The judge took the decision after Mr Burke told the court he could not comply with the order, and that he intended to return to the school.

He said his suspension arose over his objection to the school’s direction to staff last May to call “a boy” as being “a girl” at the school.

He said such a direction was “contrary to scripture” and was against the “ethos of my school and the Church of Ireland”, and something he could never agree to as he does not agree with transgenderism.

Agreeing to comply with the court order, he said, amounted to a breach of his own morals, ethos and religious views.

He added he “didn’t want to go to prison” and respected the law. However, complying with the orders would be “a contempt” of his own deeply held Christian beliefs which he said are “very dear to me”.

‘Wrongly suspended’

Representing himself in the action, Mr Burke said he had been wrongly suspended from his job, claiming the disciplinary process used to suspend him was procedurally flawed and that the injunction should not have been granted.

Mr Burke said he “loved being a teacher” and the school itself. However, he said that he objected to the school’s direction in relation to the pupil.

Mr Burke was arrested on Monday morning by gardaí at the school before being conveyed to the Four Courts in Dublin.

The order for Mr Burke’s attachment was made last Friday after the court was told that, in breach of both the terms of his paid suspension and the temporary injunction, he had been present on the school’s campus “sitting in an empty classroom”.

The school, located in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath, is the Church of Ireland’s Diocesan School for Meath and Kildare.

The school board – represented in the action by Rosemary Mallon Bl instructed by Ian O’Herlihy of Mason Hayes and Curran solicitors – claims that despite being served with and being made aware of the making of interim injunction, Mr Burke had continued to attend the school.

Counsel added the school was seeking the committal order against Mr Burke as a coercive measure, which was being taken as “a last resort”, and not a punitive one. The court heard the board does not wish to see Mr Burke jailed, but wants him to comply with the terms of the temporary injunction.

The school claims his refusal to comply with the injunction may be disruptive to the school’s students at the beginning of the new academic year.

Compliance

Giving the court’s decision, Mr Justice Quinn said the background issues in the dispute were not what he had to consider in relation to the motion for Mr Burke’s attachment and committal.

Mr Burke, he said, has an opportunity to raise his objections to both his suspension and the injunction at hearings scheduled for later this month.

The court’s only concern was Mr Burke’s compliance with the terms of the injunction, he said.

The judge said that based on what had been put before the court, Mr Burke was in clear contempt of the court’s order. The defendant had clarified his position by stating he would not comply with the injunction obtained last week, the judge noted.

The judge added that, as a result, Mr Burke was being committed to prison until he decides to purge his contempt.

Mr Burke can do this at any time, the judge said.

Previously, the court heard Mr Burke was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a disciplinary process commenced by the school, where he has been employed for several years, in mid-August.

It is alleged that the disciplinary process commenced after Mr Burke publicly voiced his alleged opposition to the school principal’s direction to address a student, who wishes to transition, by a different name and by using the pronoun “they” rather than he or she.

Mr Burke told the court on Monday that he believes this direction amounted to “hypocrisy”, adding that it was not something he could ever agree to do.

Court order

Last week, the school’s board of management secured a temporary, ex-parte, High Court order against Mr Burke preventing him from attending or teaching any classes at the school.

The order was obtained because the board claims Mr Burke was not abiding by the terms of his suspension, which it is alleged he believes is unlawful, by attending at the school.

The court also heard that a substitute teacher has been hired to teach his classes for the duration of his suspension.

The temporary injunction is to remain in place until the matter returns before the High Court later this week.

The school says Mr Burke has been placed on paid administrative leave, but has not been sanctioned and no finding has been made against him.

The school claims that despite its decision to suspend him, Mr Burke has continued to attend at the school’s campus.

The school claimed he would continue to attend the premises, in accordance with the teaching timetable assigned to him prior to his suspension, unless committed to prison.

Mr Burke, the court heard, has described his suspension as being unreasonable, unjust and unlawful.

Student welfare

The disciplinary process arose after the teacher objected to a request by the school, based on a request from a student and their parents, earlier this year to address a student, who wishes to transition, by a different name and to use the pronoun ‘they’ going forward.

Mr Burke, it is claimed, objected to this, questioned the school’s position, has alleged that a belief system is being forced on students. He also claims the school’s request amounts to a breach of constitutional rights, the High Court heard.

In correspondence to Mr Burke the school denied that anyone is being “forced” to do anything.

The school said it is focusing on the needs and welfare of its students and is affirming its policy in accordance with the 2000 Equal Status Act of not discriminating against any student.

It says it has acknowledged Mr Burke’s religious beliefs but expects him to communicate with the student in accordance with the students and their parent’s wishes.

The school claims that last June a service and dinner was held to mark its 260th anniversary. It was attended by clergy, staff, past and present pupils, parents, and board members.

It is claimed that Mr Burke interrupted the service and said the school’s principal, Niamh McShane, should withdraw the earlier demand regarding the transitioning of the student.

It is also claimed that Mr Burke said he could not agree with transgenderism and said it went against the school’s ethos and the teaching of the Church of Ireland.

The school claims that after he spoke members of the congregation and students walked out of the school chapel where the service was being conducted. It is claimed that at the follow-up dinner Mr Burke did not sit at any table.

After the meal, Mr Burke is alleged to have approached the principal and again asked her to withdraw the request regarding the student.

Mr Burke told the court he did speak after the service and that at the meal he again asked Ms McShane to withdraw the direction.

Arising out of Mr Burke’s alleged conduct, a disciplinary process was commenced and considered by the board, resulting in a decision to place him on administrative leave pending the outcome of the process.

The next stage of the disciplinary process is due to take place in mid-September.

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