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

They baptized their children for school places. Now regret is setting in.

Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT) August 25, 2018

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."