‘I go back to jail a law-abiding subject of the State but a subject of God first,’ says Enoch Burke as bid to be freed fails
15th September 2022
Enoch Burke has failed in a bid to be set free from prison after a judge refused to grant him an injunction restraining his school from continuing his paid suspension from work.
The secondary school teacher was returned to Mountjoy Prison yesterday evening after orders he sought were refused by Ms Justice Eileen Roberts.
The judge said Mr Burke had failed to reach the necessary threshold of convincing her he had a strong chance of succeeding at a full hearing of the dispute between him and his employers, Wilson’s Hospital School in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath.
Mr Burke, an evangelical Christian, was suspended from work on August 24 but continued to show up each day at the Church of Ireland diocesan boarding school.
He claimed that due to his religious beliefs he could not comply with a request from the school’s principal that teachers address a transgender student by a new name and use the pronoun “they” instead of “he”.
Mr Burke was subsequently jailed for contempt of court on September 5 for breaching an injunction secured by the school’s board of management restraining him from attending, or attempting to teach pupils, at the school.
The court was told Mr Burke did not seek to challenge his suspension until last Monday, by which stage he had spent seven days in prison.
In her ruling, Ms Justice Roberts said the teacher could have challenged his suspension earlier and he was now “seeking to re-run” arguments he had made at earlier attachment and committal hearings.
The judge said his application was “procedurally misconceived” and that while Mr Burke was entitled to hold his religious beliefs, the school’s decision to place him on administrative leave was not an attack on those beliefs.
After making her ruling, she gave Mr Burke a further opportunity to purge his contempt – which would involve undertaking to abide by the injunction restraining him from attending at work – to which he replied: “I cannot do that, judge.”
Mr Burke said: “I do think it a gross injustice that the plaintiff [Wilson’s Hospital] and the court is seeking to deny me my religious beliefs. I go back to jail as a law-abiding subject of the State but a subject of God first.”
Ms Justice Roberts responded that the teacher was not in jail because his religious freedoms had been violated but because he had breached court orders.
Mr Burke, who represented himself, had earlier claimed his suspension was contrary to various articles of the Constitution relating to personal rights, freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion.
He also sought declarations his suspension was “unfair, unjust and unlawful”, and that a report by former school principal Niamh McShane, which was a factor in his suspension, did not present facts in a fair manner. He claimed “omissions” in her account of one incident were used “to portray me as a monster”.
This related to the aftermath of a dinner where the school alleged Mr Burke questioned Ms McShane in a heated manner about the request to address the student by a new name. Mr Burke claimed: “I asked her a meek and mild question at the dinner.”
He was supported in court by his parents Seán and Martina and siblings Isaac and Ammi.
All are members of a well-known family from Castlebar, Co Mayo, some of whom have been involved in legal and other disputes in recent years.
After the judge gave her ruling, two people unrelated to the family shouted from the public gallery: “It’s a disgrace.”
One of them also shouted: “There are only two genders.”
Gardaí were present inside and outside the court for the hearing, which was attended by around 30 onlookers.
During his submissions to the court, Mr Burke claimed: “This case is absolutely about transgenderism. Nothing could be clearer.”
He claimed that if he purged his contempt, he would be giving into “something wrong”.
Rosemary Mallon, counsel for the school’s board of management, opposed Mr Burke’s application. She said he was in effect trying to appeal against the order jailing him when it was not possible to appeal a decision of the High Court to the High Court.
Ms Mallon said the relief sought by Mr Burke was one which the teacher believed would let him “go straight back into the classroom tomorrow”. The board of management, she said, had “grave concerns” about potential disruption were this to happen.