All children will have an equal right to attend Catholic primary schools here from September, regardless of their religious background, after legislation which outlaws the so-called 'baptism barrier' was passed this evening by the Oireachtas.

The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill prohibits the practice of Catholic primary schools giving priority to Catholic children over others when it comes to enrolment.

However, it copperfastens the right of minority religions to continue to discriminate in favour of co-religionists in their schools, in order to protect their ethos.

The new legislation removes an exemption from equality legislation that, until now, all religious run schools enjoyed.

The Equal Status Act prohibits discrimination in the provision of services on 9 grounds, including religion; however the exemption meant religious run schools were allowed to give preference to children of their own religion in school admissions.

This exemption has now been removed for all except minority religion primary schools.

A parents' group which campaigned for change has welcomed this evening's passing of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill.

April Duff of Education Equality said the move would bring to an end "the hard-fought battle for many parents who struggled to get a school place for their children". She said parents would finally be able "to enjoy the right to freely choose and practice their own beliefs without the fear of being refused a school place as a result".

However, Ms Duff said the group was concerned that the exemption was being retained for minority religion schools. She also called for decisive action to ensure that a child's right to attend school without receiving religious instruction was realised.

Last year, Minister for Education Richard Bruton said he believed it was unfair that parents felt pressure to baptise their children in order to gain admission to their local school.

Mr Bruton also said it was unfair that preference was given by publicly-funded religious 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 lived close to the school.

On four separate occasions in recent years the Government has been criticised by UN committees who advised that the exemption given to religious run schools here placed Ireland in breach of international conventions to which it was a signatory.

The conventions included the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial discrimination,  as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.