Possible options to reform school admissions to limit or remove the role that a child's religion plays in the process have been announced by the Minister for Education.

Richard Bruton outlined four options and announced a 10-12 week consultation process on the issue. 

Mr Bruton says he believes it is unfair that publicly-funded religious schools can give preference to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of other children who live close by.

The Minister says while 96% of primary schools here are Christian - the vast majority Catholic - over a third of couples getting married in Ireland are choosing civil non-religious ceremonies. 

The options include allowing schools to favour children of their own religion only when those children live within the school's catchment area, or when that school is their nearest one.

A third option is the introduction of quotas, allowing preference on religious grounds for a limited proportion of places.

The fourth is an outright ban on using religion as a factor in admissions.

Under this last option, the minister says, religious schools could require parents or students to indicate support for the school's religious ethos. 

Mr Bruton said there is a most important need to avoid possible impacts on the wishes of minority religions - such as Protestants - to run schools in accordance with their ethos and admit children from their communities.

Other possible consequences, he says, are breaches of the Constitution, or the creation of so-called 'postcode lotteries' where schools in less advantaged areas could suffer. 

The minister says he will be commencing a process of consultation, and is interested in hearing the views of groups who are affected, as well as members of the public. 

Mr Bruton will say the desire of religious parents to educate their children in their faith is welcome and should be respected.

But he says that non-religious parents or parents of minority religions should not be unfairly disadvantaged.

The minister says while this unfairness must be addressed, he believes that there is "no easy fix" to what he calls a "highly complex and contested area".

He delivered his speech at a seminar organised by Equate, an organisation that is campaigning for equal access to publicly-funded schools for all children.

A group campaigning for an end to religious discrimination in education say they are concerned that progress on the issue will be further delayed by the consultation process. 

Education Equality also said that three out of the four proposals made by the Minister would allow for continued discrimination against children on religious grounds.

A spokeswoman for the group, which is largely made up of parents, said today's announcement of a public consultation represented nothing more than a delay to necessary reform in the area and would provide no relief to parents who were waiting anxiously for school places for September.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Seán O'Rourke, Education Equality policy officer Paddy Monaghan said 96% of schools are entitled, by law, to discriminate on terms of religion.

Mr Monaghan said as long as those schools are not oversubscribed, the schools would accept any pupil because they needed capitation grants.

He said tax payer funded services should not be allocated on the basis of religion.

Speaking on the same programme, independent Senator Ronan Mullen said it is important to have a consultation process to look at the admission policies of primary schools.

However, he said the core problem is that the Department of Education has not planned well in urban areas and that all schools are oversubscribed.

Atheist Ireland, meanwhile, has said three of the options "would just fine-tune the religious discrimination in access, and indeed would result in some Catholic families being discriminated against".

Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said the minister was "floating ideas" and not "taking any real action".

He added that the Oireachtas Education Committee is "in the middle of carrying out a consultation on this issue and has held hearings before Christmas and will have further hearings shortly. Then it is envisaged that we will legislate."

The Catholic Church has indicated that it would favour one of four options put forward today for consideration by Minister Bruton.

The Catholic Primary School Manager's Association, which runs 90% of the State's publicly-funded primary schools said it had already been considering one option which would allow Catholic schools to continue to give preferential access to Catholic children so long as those children lived in the school's catchment area.

Under this proposal, the second category of children to be admitted would be non-Catholic children who live within the same boundaries.

Catholic children who live outside a school's direct catchment area would only be considered after that.

The CPSMA said it had been considering this option since before Christmas. The organisation said while it believed the problem was not as large as some made out, the Catholic church was looking at ways to make the system fairer to all.

The Church of Ireland has said it will give close consideration to the options put forward by the Minister, with specific consideration to how they would affect both primary and second-level Church of Ireland/Protestant schools.

In a statement it said, however, that each school would have its own view on what was appropriate for them in their individual contexts.