LEIXLIP, Ireland (CNN) – Fiona and her husband are not religious. They do not go to Mass, do not take communion or recite the holy Rosary.
But twice in recent years the couple have traveled half way through Ireland to baptize their children in the communal parishes of their families.
The reason? The education of their children.
The sacrament – and the certificate that goes with it – has long held back the key for parents who wanted to find a place for the first school day of a child at school in Ireland, where about 90% of primary schools have a Catholic ethos.
Although these schools are financed by the government, their Catholic church leaders determine the admission guidelines, giving Catholic children priority over non-Catholics in a crowded system.
This school year, that is completely ready to change.
In July, the Irish parliament approved a bill in which the & # 39; baptism barrier & # 39; was banned, making it illegal to give priority to baptized children in the admission process at Catholic schools. The bill releases schools for minority interests, which represent only about 5% of all primary schools.
The move was announced just a month before the planned visit of Pope Francis to Ireland, the first papal visit in nearly four decades.
It is the latest in a series of policy changes that reflect the gradual erosion of the ties between church and state – changes that people like Fiona say reflect a modern, secular society that has had enough of the Church's grip on its public institutions.
"We have to take our future and the future of our children and our own bodies out of the hands of religion," says Fiona.
When the bill was discussed in May, Education Minister Richard Bruton said it was "unfair to pass a local child without religion in favor of a child of religion, who lives at some distance, for access to their local school" add that parents should not feel pressured to baptize their child.
Efforts to reach representatives and advocates for Catholic schools to comment on this report remained unanswered.
But a school official gave an interview to the public broadcaster RTE in May.
Seamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association, said that dropping the baptism barrier was "superfluous", emphasizing that the issue of the recordings had nothing to do with religious discrimination, but with the fact that there was no enough schools were in a few fast-growing areas.
"The problem is the lack of school places, not the religion," Mulconry told RTE. He stressed that Catholic schools would welcome any student who wanted to join as long as there was only one place for them.
"Catholic schools want to accept everyone who applies," he said, adding that the baptismal obstruction had affected only a small number of people and that he had never met anyone who had been baptized purely for school purposes.
But Fiona – whose name has changed because of the fear of her children to get "repercussions" at school – says she is one of them.
& # 39; You can not make your child undoped & # 39;
In 2012 Fiona lived with her young family in an area in the center of Dublin known for overcrowded schools. Because she is afraid that her children are placed on a waiting list or are faced with a long journey, she decides to have them baptized.
In the pre-baptism consultation of her older daughter, the priest asked her why she had decided to do so, and noted that she and her husband were not ordinary churchgoers.
& # 39; He poked when we did it for school reasons, & # 39; Fiona remembered. "I just lied about my teeth."
The 40-year-old agnostic mother of two says that she "went quietly through the movements of the service" while her husband, an avid atheist, remained silent. The couple had said to each other: "We have to do this if we want the children to have the best."
Fiona & # 39; s family has since moved to Leixlip, a commuter town west of Dublin, where overpopulation is less problematic, but finding a secular school is.
Their 6-year-old daughter is in her first year at her Catholic school, where she participates daily in religious lessons.
On average, Irish schools spend 10% of the mandatory instruction time on religion, ethics and moral education & # 39; – the second highest in developed countries, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Although children can legally waive the daily 30-minute religious instruction, several parents have told CNN that this can lead to isolation and segregation of their peers.
Many schools do not have sufficient resources to care for children who are not in religious education and often leave that time for restorative tasks such as completing coloring books in the classroom.
"There are people in her class who do not take part in religion, but they're just in the corner of the room," Fiona explained. "It's like, & # 39; Look at you in the corner."
Another parent who shares the concerns of Fiona is Paddy Monahan, a Dublin lawyer who led the campaign to eliminate the deaf barrier in 2015 and is now campaigning with the Education Equality organization to completely change the system.
Catholic schools "often shun that child every day to the back of the class, sit separately, absorb every point of their (religious) lesson and make them feel different every day of their lives," Monahan told CNN.
For parents who have baptized their children, either for religious reasons or to "ease", to explain why they might want to get their children out of religious lessons, they may feel uncomfortable. So many simply agree and choose to focus on the positive aspects. .
The Irish education system scores well worldwide, with 2016 literacy among 10-year-olds being the best in Europe and one of the best in the world, according to Progress's results in the International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).
Nevertheless, Fiona wishes that the end of the baptism barrier has come sooner.
"You can not make your child undoped," she said.
Yet she welcomes the movement as progress, one that reflects the changing social landscape of Ireland.
Although Roman Catholicism remains the dominant religion in Ireland, the number of people who identify themselves as such has declined over a period of five years, from 84.2% in 2011 to 78.3% in 2016.
Approximately 470,000 people – almost 10% of the population of the country – now identify themselves as no religion at all, an increase of 74% in the same period.
In 2017, only slightly more than half of all marriages (50.9%) were held in a Catholic church, a decrease of 31% over 10 years. Church visits have been in decline for years, partly because of a series of scandals including systemic sexual abuse of children.
In the run-up to Pope Francis's visit to Ireland this weekend, the Pope has published an unprecedented letter in which he acknowledges that the Church is not acting on sexual abuse by clergy against minors who are decades old.
While the Church is faced with renewed anger in Ireland about accusations of abuse, she also found the flip side of two recent referendums legalizing gay marriage and abortion, respectively – changes that were unthinkable only a few years ago.
And although the elimination of the baptismal barrier may not be so monumental, some hope that the measure could help pave the way for a revision of the Irish education system.
Why do they still run our schools? & # 39;
In 2015, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations criticized the Irish education system, citing a lack of access to secular, state-funded education.
That same year, says Nikki Murphy, resident of Dublin, her son Reuben was rejected at 13 different schools because he had not been baptized. Murphy was against it for her son & pragmatic & # 39; to baptize, so she launched a campaign to open a local school that would not make any distinction between children on the basis of religion or their socio-economic background & # 39 ;.
Finally, she took her case to the Irish Supreme Court and filed a lawsuit against discrimination against the state, the ministry of education and the Attorney General.
Within ten days of her filing, Murphy said she had been given a building where they could open a secular school.
In 2017, the Minister of Education announced plans to open more multinationals and non-confessional schools. The plans include the transfer of patronage from many of the schools – the majority of which are owned by the Catholic Church – to secular schoolmasters, such as the Educate Together educational charity. The plan aims to open 400 such facilities by 2030.
But parents whose children are soon going to school soon say that it is not happening fast enough.
Orla Matthews lives in Leixlip with her 4-year-old son, Faolán. She was raised as a Catholic, but now identifies herself as an atheist and never considered baptizing her son.
There are only four elementary schools in his nearest school district and they are all Catholic.
"Haunted" by the involvement of the Church in various scandals, says Matthews, 40, that it is difficult to send him to schools with a Catholic ethos.
When she was seven months pregnant, a mass grave of non-marital infants was discovered in County Galway, in the west of the country. Almost 800 children, who once lived in a home for unmarried mothers and babies that were run by Bon Secours' Catholic sisters, were discovered. Death certificates were found, but no count details of children who died between 1925-1961. Some were found buried in an area near a sewage tank. The Archbishop of Dublin called it "nauseating."
The news shook Matthews, a single mother, to her core.
"That was like the last nail in the box," she says. "I did not want anything to do with the church, the treatment by the church of single mothers and their children was just horrible to me."
Now Matthews sends her energy to campaigns for a more secular education system, hopeful that next year an Educate Together school in the neighborhood could open.
"Why do we pay taxes – and the church, which in the past treated mothers as bad, why are they still running in our schools?" Matthews asks.
Faolán was placed on the waiting list for a secular school on the day she came on maternity leave. But three and a half years later she is still waiting.
• Including and embracing everything & # 39;
That's because there are not enough schools to feed the growing demand, according to Paul Rowe, chief executive of Educate Together, an independent group that leads secular schools. And it is not just non-believers who want to register.
Some dedicated parents choose together for Educate Together schools because they want their children to be able to mix with children from different backgrounds.
Other religious families prefer to take responsibility for the religious upbringing of their own children at home, a sign that the church can no longer contend with societal norms.
"There is a huge generation change that is trying to redefine that in terms of the democratic sector, including and all-encompassing," Rowe told CNN.
Dumping the baptism barrier is a step in the right direction, he says, adding that it sheds light on how untenable the monopoly of the Church is for power.
When the school charity organization was formed in 1978, it received a "big popular support" but "a great resilience of the establishment, especially of the religious organizations," Rowe said.
Religious organizations claimed that Educate Together pioneering & # 39; wicked schools & # 39; was and was an anti-clerical organization, "hostile to the Irish nation's concept", he said.
But Lowe says that the position of the church has evolved in secular schools.
"At a high level they see that monopolistic control (about the education system) is untenable and they ultimately consider us constructive partners."
Although the church still has great power in the field of school patronage, the end of the baptismal barrier may signal a wider secularization of the country in the coming years.
"It is almost as if Ireland becomes an oasis of civic sanity in a Europe and a world where there are increasing polarizing and nationalistic and sectarian trends." What is very interesting about the current social situation is that Ireland seems to be very strong in the other way up, "Rowe said.
For parents like Matthews, that's the kind of Ireland she has in mind for her son.
"I choose to be an atheist, but I do not expect my child to be," says Matthews, adding that she believes that religion must be a choice made outside of the school system.
"If he wants to be a Catholic later in life, I would support him, but that must be his decision."