It was announced, on Friday 20th January, that Irish schoolteacher, Enoch Burke, was sacked from his job at Wilson Hospital School, a private Church of Ireland school in Co. Westmeath, Ireland.
The dismissal followed a protracted and very public disagreement from when Mr Burke was initially suspended on full pay from his role for refusing to address a pupil as “they/them”.
Following this suspension, Mr Burke spent 108 days in jail for refusing to comply with a court order to stay away from the school following his suspension. I wrote about this previously here.
The dismissal follows a disciplinary hearing on Thursday, held at the Mullingar Park Hotel in Co. Westmeath, which was disrupted by protests from the Burke family who dispute the legality of the hearing due to the fact that the Chair of the Board of Management absent for medical reasons. On Friday, Mr Burke’s brother issued a statement that the teacher had in fact been dismissed.
The dismissal is unlikely to signal the end of the drama as the labyrinthine court and disciplinary processes are set to continue into the future with the school currently seeking a court order to sequester the assets of Mr Burke.
On Wednesday, a High Court judge refused to grant Mr Burke an injunction to halt disciplinary proceedings against him he said he will not comply with a previous court order to stay away from Wilson’s Hospital School.
The full hearing about the dispute between Mr Burke and the school over his suspension, the judge also noted, will take place shortly. There is a high likelihood that this case could end up in the European Court of Human Rights as the right to religious freedom collides with newly expressed expectations in terms of gender identity acknowledgement.
While the disciplinary process ostensibly stems from the behaviour of Mr Burke at a school event after his suspension toward towards former school principal Niamh McShane, the underlying issue of whether the school or the employer can require an employee to comply with the gender pronoun requests of students or others remains unanswered and is the substantive issue in question.
Opinion in Ireland is divided in what has become a very public disciplinary case in a single school, highlighting the unsettled nature of the substantive issue. On one side of the argument, supporters of the school’s position feel that the subjective gender expression ought to take precedence over the religious beliefs of evangelical Christian, Enoch Burke.
On the other side, Burke’s defenders are of the view that the subjective and potentially changeable gender identity preference ought not require an individual to deny their religious belief nor accept that gender identity supercedes biological reality.
The case has been complicated by Enoch Burke’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of any process that has stemmed from what he sees as a denial of his religious convictions, and by his willingness to go to jail rather than accept compromising on these beliefs.
Additionally, the school’s willingness to pursue the sequestering of Mr Burke’s assets in addition to seeing him spend nearly four months in jail, point to an equal intransigence on the part of the school that has not received the same level of attention.
Media attention focussing primarily on the behaviour and reaction of Enoch Burke and his family, who choose not to accept the legitimacy of procedures in a vocal manner that creates discomfort for observers who do not wish to engage in the substantive discussion, has turned the case into something of a soap opera.
There has been little in terms of questioning the motivation of the school in what increasingly appears to be a vindictive pursuit of Mr Burke, with the focus primarily on the now idiosyncratic, unwavering religious convictions of the Burke family, which is clearly at odds with the self-perception of much of modern Ireland.
Absent from the discussion, which has revolved around the rights of gender-questioning pupils and the religious freedom of the teacher, has been an analysis of the implications of the former usurping the latter in practical terms for wider society.
While polite society tends towards the idea that, out of decorum and avoiding confrontation, it is preferable to affirm the gender identity of the pupil rather than creating an issue as has occurred in the case of Wilson Hospital School and Enoch Burke.
However, there has been no discussion on the consequences of gender affirmation in children who are suffering from gender confusion or gender dysphoria, or about whether the possibly well-intentioned expectation of acquiescence may have longer lasting negative effects for children who become “locked-in” to what may be a temporary confusion, ushered down a path of puberty blockers and irreversible surgery rather than letting what is most likely – but not always – a passing phase.
Ireland, in 2015, introduced the Gender Recognition Act which allows any person over the age of 18 to change gender simply by declaration and signing a form. Upon this declaration, for all legal purposes, that person is identified as the gender they identify as rather than their biological sex.
For children under the age of 18 there is no such provision, nor any legal underpinning requiring a teacher to refer to a pupil by a preferred pronoun and one at odds with their biological sex. No grounds for the instruction given to Mr Burke have been provided and his incarceration for over three months and now dismissal stem from this initial action.