A judge ordered his arrest for allegedly failing to comply with a temporary injunction telling him to keep away from his school after a row over the use of the ‘they’ pronoun for a student
The schoolteacher opposed an application from Wilson’s Hospital School for his imprisonment, saying: “I love my school. I am here today because I would not call a boy a girl.”
He told Mr Justice Michael Quinn: “It is not something I will do. It is in violation of my conscience.”
The evangelical Christian was suspended on full pay on August 24 pending the outcome of a disciplinary process after clashing with the school’s principal and board of management over a request that teachers address a transgender student by a new name and use the pronoun “they” instead of “he”.
However, he continued to turn up for work, prompting the Church of Ireland diocesan boarding school to seek and secure an interlocutory injunction from Ms Justice Siobhan Stack last Wednesday restraining him from coming to its premises in Multyfarmham, Co Westmeath until September 7.
Despite this order, he continued to come to the school each morning. This led to a further application from the board of management, and Ms Justice Miriam O’Regan ordered on Friday that Mr Burke be arrested and brought before the court today.
Rosemary Mallon, counsel for the school’s board of management, told Mr Justice Quinn that it was not seeking to punish Mr Burke but was simply seeking to coerce him into abiding by the order to keep away from its premises.
“It is with a heavy heart that the school has had to bring this application,” she said.
Counsel said Mr Burke’s own account satisfied the criminal standard of proof of beyond all reasonable doubt that he had breached the order and would continue to do so.
Mr Burke, who represented himself, sat at the front of the court on a bench reserved for senior barristers after being invited to do so by the judge. He confirmed that if he was not jailed, he intended to turn up for work at the school tomorrow morning.
Mr Justice Quinn said the only matter he could concern himself with was whether there had been a wilful breach of Ms Justice Stack’s order and he could not concern himself with issues raised by Mr Burke about his suspension.
The judge said it was not in dispute that Mr Burke had not complied with the order and he was satisfied the teacher was in contempt of court.
“I order he be committed to Mountjoy Prison and remain therein until he purges his contempt or until further order of this court,” Mr Justice Quinn said.
Earlier, Mr Burke had told the court: “I am a teacher and I don’t want to be in prison. I want to be in my classroom today.”
He claimed there was a procedural defect in his suspension, which he alleged was in breach of fair procedures and unlawful. He said that for his suspension to be valid, he would have had to have committed an act of gross misconduct.
“It is reprehensible that anyone’s religious beliefs could be taken as a ground for misconduct or gross misconduct,” he said.
The teacher said transgenderism was against his religious beliefs and contrary to the teaching of all the major church on the island of Ireland.
“Were I to obey the order of the board of management and the order of the court, I would have to accept that sticking by my belief in male and female is wrong,” he said.
“It is not something I will do. It is in violation of my conscience.
“Were I to go into the school and bow to something I know to be manifestly wrong, it would be a shame and a disgrace on my part.”
Following the judge’s decision, Mr Burke, who wore a grey check suit and open-necked white shirt, said he would not be able to purge his contempt.
“I cannot purge my contempt by holding my Christian beliefs in contempt,” he said.
Mr Burke hugged his father Sean and brother Isaac, who had been watching from the body of the court, before being taken away by gardaí.
He had been arrested at the boarding school’s premises this morning and brought to the court by gardaí, arriving at 10.30am.
However, the hearing of the contempt application did not get underway until 2pm as there were other matters on the court’s list.
Mr Burke is from a well-known family from Castlebar, Co Mayo. He and some of his siblings have been involved in several legal and other disputes in recent years, some of which related to their religious beliefs.
Mr Burke has been at odds with the hierarchy at the Church of Ireland diocesan school since May, when then principal Niamh McShane issued the request to staff.
It came following a meeting between the principal, a student and the student’s parents, where the principal was told the child wished to transition.
According to papers filed in court, Mr Burke later told Ms McShane he could not agree with transgenderism and that “the demand” she had made should be withdrawn.
However, the principal pointed out that the ethos of the school was inclusive, and that the welfare of students was paramount.
Ms McShane told Mr Burke that it was also part of the school’s admission policy that it would not discriminate against a student on any of the grounds set out in the Equal Status Act.
She said any refusal to address persons by their preferred gender or new name would constitute discrimination on gender grounds.
An affidavit filed by board of management chair John Rogers outlined how Mr Burke refused to accept this and repeatedly raised the issue and clashed with the principal and the board.
Mr Burke was arrested at the boarding school’s premises in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath this morning and brought by gardaí to the High Court in Dublin, where he arrived at 10.30am
This included an incident where Mr Burke interrupted a church service marking the school’s 260th anniversary in June.
During the closing prayer, he is said to have stood up and spoke for between two and three minutes, demanding the request by Ms McShane be withdrawn.
He claimed it was against the ethos of the school and the vision of its founder, Andrew Wilson, as well as the teachings of the Church of Ireland.
The outburst prompted a walk-out by members of the congregation, including sixth-year students.
According to Mr Rogers, a dinner took place following the service, after which Mr Burke approached Ms McShane and, in a “heated” manner, asked her to withdraw the request she had made to staff.
Ms McShane said she was willing to speak to him, but this was not the appropriate place and she walked away from him. However, it is alleged he followed and continued to question her loudly. Mr Rogers said other people stood in between them to prevent the continuation of the questioning.
In a report to the school’s board, Ms McShane, who has since moved on to a principal post in another school, expressed “serious concerns” about how Mr Burke might act in future.
“These concerns extend to the student concerned and the entire student body,” she said.
The Burke family are no stranger to controversy.
Earlier this year, Enoch’s sister Ammi, a solicitor, clashed with the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and a judge over the handling of an unfair dismissals claims she is taking against law firm Arthur Cox.
Her claim was thrown out by the WRC following repeated interruptions by her mother Martina Burke.
The family matriarch runs Burke Christian School in Castlebar and home-schooled her ten children.
Three years ago, she criticised LGBTQ+ training for school principals, describing it as an “amoral, permissive framework”.
Last April, she and two of her children, Jemima and Josiah, were removed by gardaí from an inquest after making unfounded claims about a child’s healthcare.
In 2021, Ammi, Enoch and two other siblings, Isaac and Kezia, lost a court case against NUI Galway over a decision to ban them from membership of college societies for life. The court heard the Burkes distributed flyers which implicitly connected gay marriage to paedophilia and incest.
Mr Burke did not appear in court on Friday and was not legally represented but had been made aware of the court’s decision to grant the order for his arrest, counsel for the school said.
The school claims despite being served with and being made aware of the interim injunction, Mr Burke continues to attend at the school.