Ex-principal tells court school made efforts to accommodate teacher's beliefs
The former principal of Wilson’s Hospital School has given evidence in court that efforts were made to accommodate both the Christian beliefs of teacher Enoch Burke and the requests of a student transitioning genders.
A High Court case between Mr Burke and his former employer Wilson’s Hospital School was repeatedly put back on Wednesday morning to wait for an indication from Mr Burke on whether he intended to appear.
Mr Burke had represented himself in court on Tuesday morning, but after a lengthy back-and-forth where Mr Burke was warned that he was in contempt of court, Mr Justice Alex Owens said that he should not be allowed back in when proceedings resumed in the afternoon.
On Wednesday morning, neither Mr Burke nor members of his family appeared in the Dublin court when the case resumed, meaning there was no-one to represent Mr Burke in court.
After the judge asked the school’s legal team to make contact with Mr Burke, and adjourned proceedings while waiting for an indication from Mr Burke on what he intends to do, the case continued at around 11.20am.
Mark Connaughton SC, acting on behalf of the Co Westmeath school, said that the constitutional rights that Mr Burke contends have been infringed upon are “simply not engaged” in the case.
“If you go back to the request (from the principal), that Mr Burke has elevated to an attack on his rights, you’ll find there was no interference with his right to practise his religion,” he said, adding that the request was an “entirely proportional response” to respect the rights of the student.
“His single mindedness is so utterly devoid of any recognition that there could be any view other than his own.”
Niamh McShane, who was the principal of Wilson’s Hospital School from 2016 to 2022, gave evidence to say that when she sent an email on May 9 2022 to request that a student be referred to by a new name and the pronoun “they”, she had not thought much of it because they had issued a similar request in November 2021, without incident.
She also said that she had had “mostly positive” interactions with Mr Burke, including about his teaching of extracurricular debating classes.
Ms McShane told the court that with any issues he had raised prior to May 2022, they had worked through them together.
She said that as part of a week to promote diversity, students had organised a display on a board near her office of famous people who appealed to the students, which included an actor who identified as gender neutral.
“Mr Burke brought me to this and asked me if I was supportive of it, and I said I was and we had a conversation about that,” Ms McShane said.
She said he left her with the impression that he was “very unhappy” about it, and that he felt the school was promoting gender fluidity, but added that the issue was not raised at any staff meeting.
Ms McShane also told the court that during “Covid times”, when there was a return to the school and a Covid plan was put in place that included wearing face masks, “Mr Burke indicated that he didn’t want to wear a face mask”.
“But we found a compromise that he wore a visor and stayed socially distanced from the students and staff,” she said, adding that “we dealt with that together”.
Ms McShane said that in April and May, the school was engaging with a student who then requested that their name be changed and their pronouns be neutral.
After the email was sent on May 9 by Ms McShane to staff with that request from the student, the court heard that Mr Burke replied at 8.27am on May 10 to ask whether the parents of the school’s students were aware of this and whether the chaplain had agreed to it.
At 8.39am, Ms McShane told the court she replied to say that “all due care has been taken”, that no agreement from the chaplain was required, and there was no suggestion of being forced, indicating that a meeting may be required.
The court heard that Mr Burke replied to Ms McShane to say: “It’s wrong that this belief system would be forced upon students, it’s an abuse of children and their constitutional rights.”
He also indicated that he would take further action.
“At that stage I could see that this would be a significant issue for Mr Burke,” Ms McShane told the court.
At a meeting of the school’s staff held later that day, Ms McShane said Mr Burke interrupted and again sought clarity on whether parents of all students had been informed and asked the chaplain what his personal belief was.
“He was tense about this, and you could see it was a matter of particular significance to him,” Ms McShane said.
“I remember saying no-one is being asked for their personal opinions here.”
The court heard that the chaplain replied to say that Mr Burke had done a brave thing to raise the issue, but Ms McShane told the court he also indicated that his personal belief was “irrelevant”, as the obligation was to look after the children in their care.
“Chaplain was being very respectful to Mr Burke,” Ms McShane said.
She said that following the staff meeting, she reached out to Mr Burke to discuss the issue, and scheduled a meeting “designed to find an area where they could compromise”, to both support Mr Burke in his beliefs and what Ms McShane called his “discomfort”, as well as the students’ needs.
Ms McShane said that she tried to “find a way through, like we had in the past”, but added that the student was “of paramount concern”.
She said that one of the questions that was subsequently put to Mr Burke was how he intended to address the student in certain situations, for example, if he was supervising the class or if there was a fire drill evacuation.
Ms McShane said there were ways around it, such as addressing the person next to the student in question or taking roll call by asking students to write down their names.
When asked whether he had indicated how he would address the student during this engagement, Ms McShane said “he didn’t say that he would or wouldn’t”, and said “I am a professional but I cannot support this”.