Four options have been unveiled by the Education Minister to tackle the so-called baptism barrier which allows publicly funded schools to refuse places to children based on religion.
Richard Bruton says it is unfair for children to be denied entry because they are not subscribed to a particular faith or for parents to feel pressured into baptising a child to get a place.
One of the four options is to impose an outright ban on schools using religion as a factor in admissions.
But that rule would also allow religious schools to require parents or pupils to indicate support or respect for its ethos.
Some 96% of the primary schools in Ireland have a Christian religious patronage and nine out of 10 have a Catholic ethos.
Mr Bruton said the public could also have their say on t hree other admissions options over the next three months.
One is a catchment area approach. Religious schools will be stopped from giving preference to children of a certain religion who do not live locally.
Another is to introduce a ” nearest school rule” with religious schools allowed to give preference to a child of a particular religion only if it is the nearest school of that particular religion.
The final option is a quota. A religious school could give preference to children of its own religion for a proportion of its places. The remaining places would be allocated based on other criteria such as proximity to the school or a lottery.
Mr Bruton said significantly fewer than 90% of young families in Ireland were religious.
“I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, a non-religious child can be refused entry to the local school, because preference is given to a religious child living some distance away,” he said.
“I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, some parents who might not otherwise do so feel pressure to baptise their children because they feel it gives them more chance of getting into their local school.
“I believe we must address these unfairnesses.”
Mr Bruton warned that there was no easy fix and that there was a risk of unintended consequences if admission policies were reformed.
“We should live and let live, and aim for the greatest good for the greatest number,” he said.
Mr Bruton said minority religions could be affected, including the Protestant, Jewish, Islamic and other communities, who might wish to run schools in accordance with their ethos and admit children from their communities.
He said it could lead to postcode lotteries, which would create pronounced divergence in the quality of a school in a more advantaged or disadvantaged area.
Mr Bruton also said there were risks that reform would breach the constitution and that technical and administrative difficulties could hit how the country’s 4,000 schools were run.
Michael Barron, director of Equate – a group campaigning for equal access to publicly funded schools, said: “Families should not have to fear having a non-baptised child in order to gain entry, nor should they have to sign up to a belief system that is not their own.”
Paul Rowe, chief executive of Educate Together – which runs 90 schools, said there is very real discrimination in the education system.
“Children of all religious, cultural and social backgrounds should be able to access all state-funded education on an equal basis – and we are delighted that the Government has come around to accepting this position,” he said.
Seamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, which represents boards of management of more than 2,900 schools, said: “This issue is being misleadingly referred to as the baptism bar.
“It is important to clarify that there is no requirement for parents to have their children baptised in order to gain admission to a Catholic school.
“Reforms to admissions policies will do nothing to alleviate the shortage of school places – only extra school places can achieve that.”