Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Aodhan O'Faolain

A teacher who objects to addressing a student with the pronoun “they” is to remain in Mountjoy Prison after telling the High Court that he will not comply with an injunction preventing him from attending or teaching at the secondary school where he is employed.

Enoch Burke was committed to prison earlier this week until he agrees to obey a court 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.

He told the court that even if he had to remain in prison for “every hour of every day for the next 100 years” he would not compromise his beliefs nor agree to comply with the terms of the court order.

The order was granted after the school’s lawyers claimed that Mr Burke was not complying with either the terms of his paid suspension, as well as the injunction requiring him to stay away from the school.

When the matter returned before the High Court on Wednesday, Mr Justice Max Barrett, after considering submissions from Mr Burke and Rosemary Mallon BL for the school, ruled that the injunction should remain in place until the action has been fully determined by the High Court.

School’s argument

In his ruling the judge accepted that the school’s board of management argument that the application before the court on Wednesday was not about Mr Burke’s opposition to transgenderism nor his religious beliefs.

It was, as the school submitted, about Mr Burke’s refusal to comply with the terms of his paid suspension and the terms of the injunction obtained by the school.

Issues raised by Mr Burke, the judge added, were matters for either the full hearing of the dispute, or at the hearing of the disciplinary process commenced by the school against the teacher.

They were not something the court could take into account at this stage.

The judge accepted that the criteria had been made out to entitle the school to have the injunction put in place until pending the outcome of the full hearing.

Noting Mr Burke’s intention not to purge his contempt, the judge directed that he returned to Mountjoy.

The judge also ordered Mr Burke to pay the legal costs the school has incurred for bringing the applications before the courts.

The matter was adjourned for a week.

Transgender people

Ms Mallon argued to the court that the case before the judge was not about the teacher’s opposition to transgender people, nor his objection to the school’s direction to staff last May to call “a boy,” as being “a girl” at the school.

Counsel said the court was being asked to rule on applications brought arising out of Mr Burke’s refusal to comply with what the school says is the teacher’s “lawful suspension” arising out of allegations about his conduct.

Counsel said that the school had no wish to see Mr Burke in prison but given his refusal to comply with the orders and his stated intention to attend at the school, her client was left with “no option” other than to bring proceedings before the High Court.

In his submissions Mr Burke said that despite spending the last two nights in prison repeated his intention not to comply with the court’s orders, as to do so would be a denial of his deeply held Christian beliefs.

Representing himself he disagreed with counsel submission’s regarding what the case is about.

He said that he was before the courts over his refusal to comply with what he said is his unlawful suspension over his attitude towards a direction by the school to address one of its students by a different pronoun was to deny him his constitutional rights to religious freedom.

“That is the issue,” he said.

Transgenderism, he said, was contrary to scripture, and that in this instance he would “only obey God,” and would “not obey man”.

He said that by agreeing to comply with his suspension would be akin to agreeing with transgenderism.

During his submissions Mr Burke commended himself for his stance regarding the order, was critical of the courts regarding its treatment of him, and quoted the poet Robert Frost.

Mr Burke also said that the disciplinary procedures against him by the school are flawed and described any allegation of gross misconduct against him as being “ludicrous”.

He said he had voiced his opposition to the school’s direction, he said the student at the centre of the request was not in any of his classes, nor had he had any direct dealings with that particular student.

Injunction

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

The board claims that despite being served with and being made aware of the making of interim injunction Mr Burke had continued to attend at the school.

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

The court heard that 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.

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

The school’s board of management had last week secured a 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 that 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 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.

The court also heard that a substitute teacher has been hired to teach his classes while he remains suspended.

The school says despite his suspension Mr Burke has not been sanctioned and no finding has been made against him.

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.

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

The school said that 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.

Religious beliefs

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 that the school’s then principal, Ms Niamh McShane, should withdraw the earlier demand regarding the student.

It is also claimed that he said that 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 he is alleged to have approached the principal, and again asked her to withdraw the request regarding the student.

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 later this month.

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