‘A secular Constitution is the only way to protect equally the rights of religious and nonreligious people’ – Michael Nugent

Atheist Ireland campaigns for a secular Irish Constitution, which respects equally the right of every citizen to our religious or nonreligious philosophical beliefs, with the State remaining neutral on these beliefs. Religious states promote religion, atheist states promote atheism, and secular states promote neither. In a pluralist democratic society, a secular Constitution is the only way to protect equally the rights of religious and nonreligious people.

There are three broad areas in which the Constitution should be amended: references to God, religious oaths and fundamental rights.

1. References to God

Firstly, we need to remove specific references to God, such as all authority coming from the Holy Trinity and our obligations to our divine Lord Jesus Christ (Preamble); powers of government deriving under God from the people (Article 6); blasphemy being an offence (Article 40); the homage of public worship being due to Almighty God and the state holding his name in reverence (Article 44); and the glory of God (Closing Line).

Some key issues here are:

The Preamble to the Constitution is unambiguously sectarian, and is not appropriate for a pluralist democratic Republic. It begins: “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial…”

Article 44 states that: “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.” This is an extraordinary Section to have in the Constitution of a democratic Republic. It does not enshrine the right of citizens to publicly worship a God, but enshrines the right of that God to be publicly worshipped.

Article 40 includes a ban on blasphemy. Blasphemy laws generally are harmful for three reasons: they endanger freedom of speech and deny equality, they are used to infringe on human rights around the world, and they have been condemned by reputable international bodies. The Irish blasphemy law in particular is harmful for three reasons; it reinforces the religious ethos of the 1937 Constitution, it brings our parliament and our laws into disrepute, and Islamic states like Pakistan use it at the UN to promote universal blasphemy laws.

2. RELIGIOUS OATHS

Secondly, we need to replace all religious oaths for public officeholders with a single neutral declaration that does not refer to either the religious or nonreligious philosophical beliefs of the person. As well as President (Article 12), Council of State (Article 31) and Judges (Article 34), there is also in practice a religious oath for Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Chair of the Dail and Seanad, and Attorney General, as these officeholders are obliged to be members of the Council of State and are thus obliged to swear the oath for that office.

There is a tendency to think that the religious oaths for office holders could be resolved by allowing people to choose between a religious and secular option. This may on the surface seem reasonable, but it is not. Office holders should not be obliged to reveal their religious or nonreligious philosophical beliefs. 

Also, if alternative declarations were to be provided, the opposite to a theistic oath would not be a neutral declaration. The opposite to a theistic oath would be a declaration that there is no God. If you realise why it would be inappropriate for a Judge to swear that there is no God, then you should also realise why it is inappropriate for a Judge to swear that there is a God. Instead, there should be a single neutral declaration.

3. FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS

Thirdly, we need to amend the Articles on Fundamental Rights to explicitly give equal protection to religious and nonreligious philosophical believers, particularly where the Articles are unduly influenced by Roman Catholic teachings. This includes the Articles on equality (Article 40), the family (Article 41), education (Article 42) and religion (Article 44). We should frame these Articles generally so that they are based on human rights and duties and not on religious beliefs.

Some key issues here are:

Article 40.3.3 states that: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” This Article was inserted into the Constitution after a campaign based on enforcing Catholic teaching about abortion on all citizens through the Constitution. It should be removed to enable the Oireachtas to pass laws that base healthcare decisions on compassion, human rights, personal autonomy, and the medical needs of patients.

Article 44.2.4 states that: “The State shall provide for free primary education…” Because the State is only obliged to provide for education, as opposed to providing education directly, it absolves itself of this responsibility and delegates it to private bodies and institutions. In recent years there have been nine sets of recommendations from United Nations and Council of Europe human rights bodies saying that Ireland is breaching the human rights of children, parents and teachers in the education system.

The State has a duty to respect equally the human rights of all children, parents and teachers. This requires a national network of public secular schools, inclusive of all, neutral between religions and atheism, and focused on the educational needs of all children equally. Divesting some religious schools to new private patrons will not achieve pluralism in education. The Oireachtas Education Committee has warned that multiple patronage and ethos can lead to segregation and inequality.

The Irish State claims that it cannot provide a secular education system because it is constitutionally obliged to allow State-funded schools to discriminate against its own citizens. Others disagree. Whatever the legal position actually is, the Government should respect democracy, and stop closing down debate with an unpublished, untested legal opinion. If the Courts do find that the Constitution obliges the State to support this discrimination, then we urgently need a Schools Equality Referendum.

Article 44.2.3 states: “The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.” This prevents the state from discriminating between one religion and another religion, but it does not prevent the state from discriminating between religions and nonreligious philosophical convictions. This should be amended comprehensively to explicitly give equal protection to religious and nonreligious philosophical believers.


SUMMARY

The Irish people have moved on from the Catholic Ireland of the 1930s. We are no longer a Catholic people, but a pluralist people with Catholic laws. The politicians and the Constitution have to catch up with the new Ireland.

If you want to help make this happen more quickly you can join Atheist Ireland and help with their campaigns for an ethical secular constitution. You can do so at http://atheist.ie 

By Michael Nugent, Chairperson of Atheist Ireland

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