by Lisa Tilley
TEACHERS are sacked for joining trade unions, going out for drinks with friends and for “living in sin.” This may conjure images of the type of arbitrary repression practised historically under Franco’s dictatorship but in fact it is concurrent with contemporary Spain.
Teachers of religious education (RE) – actually exclusively Catholicism – in state schools continue to be recruited and dismissed at the judgement of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church of Spain. Now, Spain’s Constitutional Court has ruled bishops should continue to have the right to fire RE teachers if they deem their lives to be sufficiently incongruous with the Catholic dogma they teach. Some have lost their jobs for taking part in legal strikes or simply for being members of a trade union, but for most it has been their personal life which has been their downfall. At present 14 dismissed teachers are challenging the system after being fired for aspects of their private lives such as cohabiting with a divorced person or even “going out for drinks with friends.”
The head of the trade union USITep (Unión Sindical Independiente de Trabajadores Empleados Públicos), Alfredo Sepúlveda commented: “This verdict legitimises the persecution of religion teachers in a way that is inconceivable in a state governed by the rule of law.” The Employment and Social Affairs Department of the European Union is enraged that its norms of equal opportunities are being bypassed by Spain. A year ago the EU warned the Spanish Government the practice should cease and Brussels has once again reminded Madrid of its responsibility to comply with EU rules on equal opportunities.
Teachers or Preachers?
They are paid the same as other teachers and their contracts bear the government seal but they are selected by the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Conferencia Episcopal (bishops’ association) maintains it should not have to give an explanation when it decides to dismiss one of its employees.
The fact that bishops can renew or cancel contracts without reason has provoked numerous court cases and cost around 300 million euros in compensation for unfair dismissal and moral damages. The practice continues because, they argue, the teaching of religious dogma goes beyond a normal job and special requirements in terms of the moral and religious character of teachers should be maintained. Therefore, the Church feels it is appropriate to dismiss a teacher, for example, for cohabiting with a divorcee. Alfredo Sepúlveda implies that this lack of tolerance for the nature of modern relationships is out of touch with Spanish public opinion, by pointing out that the ever popular Doña Letizia, Princess of Asturias and future Queen of Spain is, in fact, a divorcee.
The classroom: the last enclave of National Catholicism?
The boiling point in Spanish society is found at the crossroads between the Church and the State, which happens to be in the classroom.
In Spain’s officially secular state there remain pockets of Church domination over the elected Government. But as the Church’s influence wanes under democracy it is keen to maintain its privileged position in schools. The recent constitutional court ruling was clinched on a piece of legislation penned during the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy. This guarantees that Catholicism would continue to be taught in state schools. Therefore, with the death of Franco’s doctrine “National Catholicism” and the advent of secular democracy, the Church would continue to have influence over the coming generations during their most formative years. Hence, Catholic dogma is taught to all students under the age of 16 unless (as ruled possible in a recent law) they choose to opt out and study the history of religion or take independent study.
The elephant in the classroom remains to be that the teacher of Catholicism does not have (even in theory) the constitutional rights of other Spaniards; they can be dismissed at the whim of the clergy and have their private lives routinely invaded. That these teachers are not entitled to equal rights or privacy is indicative of a deficit in Spanish democracy.
The constitutional contradictions mean that teachers are successful in winning compensation in local courts but lose when the cases are challenged in the Spanish constitutional court.
The most recent ruling by the latter concerns a teacher from the Canary Islands who was separated from her husband: María del Carmen Galayo was living with her new partner and for this “extramarital relationship” she was dismissed. Ms Galayo has endured a six-year legal struggle during which she has maintained she has a constitutional right to privacy and religious freedom. Spain’s constitutional court has ruled against her in favour of the bishops’ right to dismiss teachers for leading what they deem to be immoral private lives.
Nereida del Pino Díaz Mederos is a married woman and teacher of Catholicism from Gáldar, near Las Palmas. The local bishop fired her for taking part in a legal strike in 1999 and since then she has spent most of her time in legal limbo. The Canary Islands courts have ordered she be paid compensation and back-salary and she be re-instated for the following school term, but the Church continues to dismiss her. Díaz Mederos has won a further lawsuit after a public hearing on January 12 in Gáldar. However, despite everything, she still wishes to return to her post as a teacher of Catholicism.
Martín Domingo Suárez Quesada has won his fourth lawsuit for compensation of 3,000 euros in damages and back payment of lost earnings. He is a member of two trade unions and believes this is why he was dismissed. Two further cases have condemned the bishops and the Government for abusing the teachers’ fundamental rights and their freedom to join trade unions. These teachers have been successful in the courts of the Canary Islands, but the clergy and the ministry of education are expected to take the cases to higher courts to contest their constitutionality.