A major clash between Stormont's First Minister and the Catholic Church hierarchy was signalled yesterday by Bishop Donal McKeown, chairman of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education.
On the eve of their three day autumn meeting, Bishop McKeown called on Peter Robinson and his Democratic Unionist Party to recognise the fundamental right of parents to opt for faith-based education for their children.
He was responding to a speech by Mr Robinson last Friday objecting to the state providing and funding church schools, which he denounced as "a benign form of apartheid".
Citing the need to cut costs, he claimed it was "absurd" to allow different education sectors, and he urged the creation of a single body to oversee all schools.
But last night Bishop McKeown insisted that the right of parents to send their children to "faith schools" was guaranteed by the European Convention for Human Rights.
"It is also the hallmark of a stable and pluralist society.''
Bishop McKeown pointed out that parents who choose faith-based schools for their children paid taxes toward the provision of that education, and the Catholic Church has also contributed substantial funding and resources for the provision of Catholic schools over generations, which had ultimately saved the taxpayer money.
He said Catholic schools were committed to welcoming pupils of all backgrounds and to building a cohesive society in the service of the common good.