Faolán Matthews, 4, outside the North Kildare Educate Together school. Kara Fox/CNN
Leixlip, Ireland CNN  — 

Fiona and her husband aren’t religious. They don’t go to Mass, take communion or recite the Holy Rosary.

But twice in recent years, the couple have driven halfway across Ireland to baptize their children at their families’ community parishes.

The reason? Their children’s education.

The sacrament – and the certificate that comes with it – has long held the key for parents hoping to secure a place for a child’s first day at school in Ireland, where approximately 90% of primary schools have a Catholic ethos.

Although those schools are state-funded, their Catholic Church patrons set the admission guidelines, giving Catholic children priority enrollment over non-Catholics in a crowded system.

This school year, that’s all set to change.

In July, the Irish parliament passed a bill outlawing the “baptism barrier,” making it illegal to prioritize baptized children in the admissions process at Catholic schools. The bill exempts minority faith schools, who account for only about 5% of all primary schools.

The move was announced just a month before Pope Francis’ scheduled visit to Ireland, the first papal visit in nearly four decades.

It’s 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 fed up with the Church’s hold on its public institutions.

“We need to get our futures and our kids’ futures and our own bodies out of the hands of religion,” Fiona says.

A sign at the Church of Our Lady's Nativity in Leixlip that was put up ahead of Pope Francis' visit this weekend.

As the bill was being debated in May, Education Minister Richard Bruton said it was “unfair that a local child of no religion is passed over in favor of a child of religion, living some distance away, for access to their local school,” adding that “parents should not feel pressured to baptize their child.”

Efforts to reach representatives and advocates for Catholic schools to comment for this report went unanswered.

But one school official gave an interview to public broadcaster RTE in May.

Seamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, said dropping the baptism barrier was “redundant,” emphasizing that the issue of admissions was not about religious discrimination but about there not being enough schools in a few high-growth areas.

“The issue is the lack of school places, not religion,” Mulconry told RTE. He emphasized that Catholic schools would welcome any student who wanted to join, as long as there was a place for them.

“Catholic schools want to accept everybody who applies,” he said, adding that the baptism barrier had only affected a small number of people and that he had never met someone who had gotten a baptism purely for school purposes.

But Fiona – whose name has been changed out of fears her children could face “repercussions” at school – says she’s one of them.

‘You can’t unbaptize your child’

In 2012, Fiona was living with her young family in an area of central Dublin known for overcrowded schools. Fearful that her children might be put on a waiting list or face a long commute, she decided to get them baptized.

At her older daughter’s pre-baptism consultation, the priest asked her why she had decided to do so, noting that she and her husband weren’t regular churchgoers.

“He prodded if we were doing it for school reasons,” Fiona recalled. “I pretty much lied through my teeth.”

The 40-year-old agnostic mother of two says she “went through the motions of the service quietly” as her husband, a staunch atheist, remained silent. The couple had told each other, “We have to do this if we want the kids to have the best.”

Fiona’s family has since moved to Leixlip, a commuter town west of Dublin, where overcrowding is less of a problem, but finding a secular school is.

A woman passes one of three Catholic primary schools on Leixlip's Green Lane.

Their 6-year-old daughter is in her first year at her Catholic-run local school, where she takes part in daily religious lessons.

On average, Irish schools spend 10% of compulsory instruction time on “religion, ethics and moral education” – the second highest among developed nations, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Although children can legally opt out of the daily 30-minute religious instruction, several parents told CNN that doing so can lead to isolation and segregation from their peers.

Many schools don’t have adequate resources to look after children who aren’t in religious instruction, often leaving that time for remedial tasks such as filling in coloring books at the back of class.

“There are people in her class who don’t participate in religion but they just sit in the corner in the room,” Fiona explained. “It’s like, ‘Look at you guys in the corner.’”

Another parent who shares Fiona’s concerns is Paddy Monahan, a Dublin lawyer who spearheaded the campaign to eliminate the baptism barrier in 2015 and is now campaigning with the organization Education Equality to change the system altogether.

Catholic schools often “shun that child every day to the back of the class, sitting separately, absorbing every point of their (religious) lesson and making them feel different every day of their lives,” Monahan told CNN.

For parents who have baptized their children, whether for religious reasons or for “convenience,” explaining why they might want to take their children out of religious instruction can be uncomfortable, so many just go along with it, and choose to focus on the positives.

Globally the Irish education system ranks well, with 2016 literacy rates among 10-year-olds the best in Europe and among the best in the world, according to Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) results.

Scoil Chearbhaill Uí Dhálaigh, an Irish-language Catholic school in Leixlip.

Despite that, Fiona wishes the end of the baptism barrier had come sooner.

“You can’t unbaptize your child,” she said.

Still, she welcomes the move as progress, one that reflects Ireland’s changing social landscape.

While Roman Catholicism remains the dominant religion in Ireland, the number of people identifying as such has fallen over a five-year period, from 84.2% in 2011 to 78.3% in 2016.

Some 470,000 people – nearly 10% of the country’s population – now identify as having no religion at all, a rise of 74% in the same period.

In 2017, only a little over half of all marriages (50.9%) were held in a Catholic Church, a 31% decrease over 10 years. Church attendance has been in decline for years, in part because of a series of scandals including systemic child sexual abuse.

Ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland this weekend, the pontiff released an unprecedented letter acknowledging the Church’s failure to act over sexual abuse by clerics against minors going back decades.

While the Church is facing renewed anger in Ireland over abuse allegations, it has also found itself on the losing side of two recent referendums that legalized same-sex marriage and abortion, respectively – changes that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

And although the elimination of the baptism barrier might not be as monumental, some hope the measure could help to pave the way for an overhaul of Ireland’s education system.

‘Why are they still running our schools?’

In 2015, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticized the Irish educational system, citing a lack of access to secular, state-funded education.

That same year, Dublin resident Nikki Murphy says, her son Reuben was rejected at 13 different schools because he hadn’t been baptized. Murphy was opposed to “pragmatically” baptizing her son, so she launched a campaign to open a local school that wouldn’t “discriminate against any child on the basis on religion or on their social economic background.”

Road signs mark a school zone in Leixlip.

She eventually took her case to Ireland’s high court, filing a discrimination lawsuit against the state, the department of education and the attorney general.

Within 10 days of lodging her case, Murphy says she was offered a building where they could open a secular school.

In 2017, the education minister announced plans to open more multi-denominational and non-denominational schools. The plans include transferring patronage out of many of the schools – the majority of which are owned by the Catholic Church – to secular school patrons like the educational charity Educate Together. The plan aims to open 400 such facilities by 2030.

But parents whose children are set to start school soon say it’s not happening fast enough.

Orla Matthews lives in Leixlip with her 4-year-old son, Faolán. She was raised Catholic but now identifies as atheist and never considered baptizing her son.

Matthews and her son Faolán outside the North Kildare Educate Together school, a 15-minute drive from their house. Matthews placed her son on its waitlist in March 2015, hoping for a spot by September 2019. Now she is campaigning for another secular school to open in her locality.

There are only four elementary schools in his closest school district, and they’re all Catholic.

“Haunted” by the Church’s involvement in a variety of scandals, Matthews, 40, says it is hard to imagine sending him to schools with a Catholic ethos.

When she was seven months pregnant, a mass grave of babies born out of wedlock was discovered in County Galway in the west of the country. Almost 800 children, who once lived at a home for unwed mothers and babies run by the Catholic sisters of Bon Secours, were discovered. Death certificates were found, but no burial records located from children who had died between 1925-1961. Some were found buried in an area near a sewage tank. Dublin’s Archbishop called it “sickening.”

The news shook Matthews, a single mother, to her core.

“That was like the final nail in the coffin,” she says. “I wanted nothing to do with the Church. The Church’s treatment of single mothers and their children was just abhorrent to me.”

Read: A baby’s murder opened a dark chapter in Ireland that still hasn’t been closed

Now, Matthews is directing her energy towards campaigning for a more secular educational system, hopeful that an Educate Together school might open nearby next year.

Matthews stands outside of a Catholic primary school closer to her home.

“Why are we paying taxes – and the Church, who have treated single mothers so badly in the past, why are they still running our schools?” Matthews asks.

Faolán was placed on a waiting list for a secular school the day she came off maternity leave. But three and a half years later, she’s still waiting.

‘Inclusive and all embracing’

That’s because there are not enough of those schools to feed the growing demand, according to Paul Rowe, chief executive of Educate Together, an independent group that runs secular schools. And it’s not just non-believers who want to enroll.

Some devout parents choose 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 their own children’s religious education at home, one sign that the Church can no longer set societal norms unquestioned.

“There’s a huge generational change that’s trying to redefine that in terms of the democratic sector, inclusive and all-embracing,” Rowe told CNN.

Ditching the baptism barrier is a step in the right direction, he says, adding that it’s shed light on just how untenable the Church’s monopoly on power is.

When the school charity formed in 1978, it was met with “great popular support” but “huge establishment resistance, primarily from the religious organizations,” Rowe said.

Religious organizations claimed that Educate Together was pioneering “godless schools” and was an anti-clerical organization, “hostile to the concept of Irish nationhood,” he said.

Matthews's son Faolán, 4, will enter the school system next year.

But Lowe says the Church’s position on secular schools has evolved.

“At a high level, they see that monopoly control (over the education system) is untenable and they finally consider us to be constructive partners.”

While the Church is still in a position of great power in terms of school patronage, the end of the baptism barrier may signal a broader secularization of the country in the years ahead.

“It’s almost as if Ireland is becoming an oasis of civic sanity in a Europe and a world where there is increasing polarizing and nationalistic and sectarian trends going on. What’s very interesting about the social situation today is that Ireland seems to be going very strongly in the other direction,” Rowe said.

For parents like Matthews, that’s the sort of Ireland she envisions for her son.

“I choose to be atheist, but I don’t expect my child to be that,” Matthews says, adding that she believes religion should be a choice made outside the school system.

“If he chooses to be Catholic later in life, I would support him. But that has to be his decision.”