Discrimination under the Equal Status Acts – University challenge?

Author: Siobhan Lafferty, Barry Walsh

June 26, 2019

A claim against NUI Galway (“NUIG”) by four sibling students who claimed they were treated less favourably by the University on religious grounds has made its way to the Circuit Court.

The Burke siblings were active members of college groups including the Christian Union and the Life Society.  They had been banned by the university from all student societies at NUIG in November 2014 after distributing materials and erecting posters in respect of their Christian beliefs, particularly in relation to gay marriage and abortion.

The siblings challenged this ban under the Equal Status Acts 2000-2015 (“the Acts”) alleging religious discrimination, harassment and victimisation by NUIG.

The Acts specify four areas in which an education institution must not discriminate across the nine grounds of discrimination:

  • Admission of students;
  • Student access to a course, facility or benefit provided by the establishment;
  • Any other term or condition of participation; and
  • Expulsion of students and other sanctions.

The siblings argued there was a campaign of harassment against them including ripping down their posters; vandalising their information stand during the same sex marriage referendum and harassment at their information stand, amongst other things.  Their claim was heard in the first instance by the Equality Tribunal (subsequently subsumed into the WRC). It found that the siblings had not made a prima facie case of discrimination, harassment and/or victimisation by NUIG under the Acts and dismissed the complaints.

This decision was then appealed and was due to be heard last week in Galway’s Circuit Court.

Prior to the commencement of the Circuit Court appeal hearing, it was reported that NUIG was lifting their lifetime bans and offered to seek no order on costs if the siblings discontinued the legal action.  However, this was not accepted by the Burke family who decided to press ahead with the proceedings.  However, the appeal has now been delayed as the Burkes are requesting that the Circuit Court judge recuse herself in light of comments which, they allege, suggest she was prejudging the case. Apparently, the judge has asked (but not ruled) whether the case was moot in light of the lifting of the bans.

The case rumbles on and is a reminder of the impact of the Acts on educational institutions and the risk of equality based claims by students.

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