The Minister for Education has taken a step towards removing the so-called baptism barrier for school admissions.

Richard Bruton told an Oireachtas committee this afternoon that he wants to make a provision to ensure that, for the vast majority of State-funded primary schools, religion cannot be used as a criterion in admissions.

He said he does not believe parents should feel obligated to have their child baptised, and said it is his view that it is unfair that preference can be given by publicly-funded denominational schools to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of children of a different religion or of no religion who live close to the school.

"Under the bill being debated today, schools which are not oversubscribed will have to accept all applicants.

"This means that religion will not be used in admissions to 80% of schools, and in fact this is already the practice in most schools (including denominational schools). 

"It is in the 20% other schools that this issue now needs to be addressed. I am seeking to be fair to all parents, while recognising the right of all schools to have their distinctive ethos.

"The aim is to meet the wishes of non-denominational parents - who now amount to well over 10% of their cohort - without unfairly impinging on the rights of other children."

Mr Bruton set out that his preference is to remove the capacity for State-funded denominational primary schools, where they are oversubscribed, to use religion as a criteria in admissions process except, in three scenarios: where it would not otherwise be possible to maintain the ethos of the school; where the school is established by a minority religion, in order to ensure that students of that religion can find a school place in a school of that ethos; and where the school is established by a minority religion, in order to admit a student of that religion who resides in a community consistently served by that school.

Fianna Fáil's education spokesman Thomas Byrne gave the announcement a cautious welcome.

The Social Democrats said that at a minimum legislators should ensure that religion classes should be moved to the end of the school day so that children who are not attending them can be taken home rather than facing the awkward alternative of being supervised in separately while the religion class is being taught.

Labour TD Joan Burton earlier described Mr Bruton as the Prince Hamlet of the Government, saying he cannot make a decision over school admissions.

The eponymous character from the Shakespearean tragedy is a byword for indecisiveness, due to his inability to settle on a course of action.

Lobby group Equate welcomed Minister Bruton's commitment to amend the Equal Status Act, but said it would be more effective and fair to deal with the issue in the Admission to Schools Bill currently before the Oireachtas.

Equate director Michael Barron called for clarification of the three limited circumstances in which a school could use religion as a criterion for admission.

He said: "At present our independently commissioned research has shown that 24% of people would not have baptised their child if they didn't need it for entry to school so the time for change is well past due".