Trade union groups in the Republic of Ireland have expressed their dismay at a ruling by the European Commission confirming that church schools can sack teachers who are openly gay.

Under the Employment Equality Act religious schools can dismiss homosexual teachers.

Section 37 of the Act states that schools that promote certain religious values can take action “to prevent an employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.”

The European Commission initially warned that the provision was not compatible with EU anti-discrimination legislation, but has now changed its mind after the Irish government argued that it was a narrow exception to equal treatment.

The Commission accepted that an employee should not undermine the “ethos” of an institution they work for, such as a Roman Catholic school or hospital.

95% of primary schools in the Republic are Catholic-run.

Ethos could also affect teachers who are divorced or co-habit, as there is no clear definition of the terms “undermine” and “ethos.”

Teaching unions fear the law could be used to sack teachers who are homosexual, even if they are not open about their sexuality in schools.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are supposed to be protected from discrimination in employment by an EU directive.

The Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) group of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, which has 35 members, has called for the Irish law to be changed.

“Section 37 casts a long shadow that if we are out in school as gay teachers, then the possibility of dismissal might become a reality,” Shelia Crowley, who chairs the group, told the union’s conference in March.

“We feel that if we live openly as LGB teachers in schools under denominational management, then this could be construed as undermining the religious ethos of an institution.

“Many of our group cannot afford to take this risk and be open in school about our sexuality.”

She added that gay and lesbian teachers faced “isolation, alienation, harassment, discrimination and downright bigotry” on a regular basis and stated that only six out of the 35 members were in a position to be open about their sexuality in school.

“I have been teaching for over 30 years in seven different schools all under denominational management. For 24 of these years I have been living with my partner, a woman.

“However, my life as a lesbian teacher has been covered by a cloak of invisibility to colleagues and pupils. Silence is not neutral and it can – and often does – mask homophobia.”

The European Commission’s change of heart on the issue is a blow to the campaign for repeal.

Last month the Commission announced that European Union citizens will not be protected by an EU directive from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Only disability will be covered by the new directive.

The European Commission decided not to propose a more wide-ranging measure.

“The Commission would still prefer to have a ‘horizontal’ directive that covers all the discrimination grounds in all the areas that are not covered yet,” Jan Jarab of the Employment Department of the Commission told the BBC’s The Record: Europe.

“Having said that, we need to be realistic, and we have signals from some member states that they would not support such a horizontal directive and this, of course, is a problem because we need unanimity in council to get the proposal through.

“So at present we are envisaging a bit of a compromise which means a directive that will be specific to disability, which of course is a discrimination ground that we can justify, referring to the new international convention on disabilities.”

Asked why the Commission is not challenging member states to come out and say they oppose protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual people, he said that even the disability directive will be “quite challenging.”

“On the other remaining grounds, age, sexual orientation and religion, we will issue recommendations, as opposed to a directive,” he said.

There is at present no EU law protecting LGB people from discrimination in areas such as goods and services similar to those which cover race and gender.