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School teacher and caretaker scuffle over Virgin Mary statue

A teacher’s attempt to remove a statue of the Virgin Mary at a school has sparked an altercation with a caretaker.

Image: i7do via Shutterstock

THE ATTEMPTED REMOVAL of a statue of the Virgin Mary at a school in Ireland has sparked a scuffle between a teacher and a school caretaker that left the caretaker visibly shaken and with a cut to his neck.

The computer science and maths teacher – who is a humanist – was sanctioned by his superiors after the pair had a confrontation over the statue. The altercation happened because the teacher removed the Virgin Mary status on a makeshift May Altar erected by the caretaker at the entrance to the school.

As a result of the dispute between the two, the caretaker in his 60s sustained a cut to his neck and bruising to his hand.

The matter was also reported to Gardaí and an investigation by the school was carried out, where the teacher was issued a verbal warning.

Not discrimination

Details of the incident which occurred on 1 May 2015 are contained in a new Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) ruling which has found that the teacher concerned wasn’t discriminated against on the grounds of religion concerning the placing of the Virgin Mary and the altar at a prominent place in the school.

Adjudication officer in the case, Enda Murphy said that it is clear that the incident “was very unsavoury and that both parties engaged in conduct which was unprofessional and totally unacceptable in the workplace”.

It is also clear from the evidence adduced that the incident caused upset and distress to both parties.

Murphy noted that the teacher is the only person to complain about the May altar in a 30-year-long tradition at the school of erecting the altar.

‘Visibly shook’

A witness to the immediate aftermath of the incident said that the caretaker “stumbled out from behind the area after an aggressive altercation” and that the caretaker was “visibly shook from the incident”.

No parties are named in the case and the teacher – employed at the school since 1994 – told the hearing that the placing of the statue provoked deep unease and anxiety in him because of his deeply held beliefs.

He said that the presence of the May altar “is unpalatable and offensive to him personally on the basis of his belief that the religious statue of the Virgin Mary is one associated with the repression of normal human sexuality”.

The teacher said that the manner in which he was accosted by the school caretaker while he tried to remove the statue amounted to harassment.

He said that the incident greatly impacted upon him in that it resulted in him suffering physical harm and also caused him to suffer very considerable stress and anxiety.

The teacher stated that he sought to remove the religious statue “to bring it to the attention of management” but his employer didn’t accept this.

The accounts of what occurred between the teacher and caretaker are disputed but according to the school, the teacher told the caretaker in an aggressive manner “I’m putting it in your room so you can look at it” before removing the statue.

Altercation

The school stated that when the teacher was then asked to put back the statue and when he refused, the caretaker sought to retrieve it from him.

It was then that the teacher pushed the caretaker backwards causing him to sustain a cut to his neck and bruising to his hand.

The employer in the case is described as an Education and Training Board which provides a range of education programmes including Second Level Education, Post Leaving Certificate Programmes, Further Education and Adult & Community Education, while at the time the complainant was a teacher of computer science and maths at a regional Central Technical Institute (CTI).

The 2015 altercation followed an earlier confrontation between the teacher and a colleague, Mr A on the teaching staff in 2012 after a statue from the May altar was removed.

Mr A believed that the teacher had removed the statue and the two had a heated discussion.

It was only after the intervention of the deputy principal, Ms A that the statue was returned and it was decided to relocate the altar to the Gaelcholaiste, which is at the other end of the same building,

Throwing out the teacher’s claim for discrimination, harassment and victimisation, Murphy said:

I find that the presence of the May altar in the complainant’s workplace and his subsequent attempt to remove the religious statue did not constitute a prohibition or disadvantage on him in terms of the manifestation or assertion of his beliefs as a humanist.

“I am satisfied that the placement of the May altar is a passive symbol which is not intended for the purpose of imposing or manifesting Catholic or Christian beliefs upon the complainant personally.”

Murphy also found that the presence of religious symbols such as the May altar is wholly legitimate, rational and proportionate to the object of the preservation of the Christian ethos within the CTI.

“I am satisfied that the actions of the complainant in attempting to remove the statute on the date in question served to undermine the religious ethos of the school.”

Murphy said that he couldn’t accept that the teacher’s actions in attempting to remove the statue “were tantamount to an act of expression of his religious beliefs”.

A more prudent course of action would have been to raise his concerns regarding the matter with management instead of taking it upon himself to remove the statue.

Galway based solicitors for the teacher, Purdy Fitzgerald yesterday declined to comment on the case while solicitors for the employer Eversheds Sutherland also declined to comment.

Read: Corbett trial: Prosecutors bid to reject attempts to overturn verdicts due to ‘jury misconduct’

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Gordon Deegan

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