Atheist Ireland welcomes call by Irish Council of State members to remove religious oaths from Constitution

by Michael Nugent on October 14, 2013

Atheist Ireland welcomes the call from six members of the Council of State for the removal of the religious elements from the oaths that the Irish President, judges and Council of State members have to swear in order to take up office.

It is a significant step for members of the Council of State to join us and other advocacy groups in calling for the removal of this religious dimension, in order to allow all citizens the opportunity to take up public office without dissembling.

Six of the President’s seven nominees to the Council have asked the Constitutional Convention to recommend revising these oaths. They say that the issue came to their attention at the first meeting of the Council of State under President Higgins.

At that meeting, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore had to swear the religious oath, despite being publicly on record as saying that he does not believe in God. He said that he had taken legal advice, and that he had a constitutional obligation to swear the oath.

Atheist Ireland had raised this issue with the Tanaiste before this meeting. Atheist Ireland has also raised it several times at the annual OSCE human rights meeting in Poland, including last year when Eamon Gilmore was chair of the OSCE.

The six members of the Council of State who have made the submission to the Constitutional Convention, acting in their individaul capacities, are Catherine McGuinness, Michael Farrell, Sally Mulready, Ruairi McKiernan, Deirdre Heenan and Gerard Quinn.

What the Council of State members say

The Council of State members say in their submission that the oaths could exclude or cause embarrassment to atheists, agnostics and humanists. They could also be unacceptable to Quakers and other Christians who do not approve of religious oaths, and to members of some other non-Christian faiths.

They recall that the 1996 Constitutional review Group recommended that the President and Council of State members should have the option to swear a religious or nonreligious declaration, and that judges should swear only a single declaration without releigious references as it was not desirable that judges should have to declare their religious beliefs or values.

They recall that the United Nations Human Rights Committee – the treaty monitoring body that monitors implementation of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – has also expressed concern about the specifically religious oath for judges.

They say that Republican forms of government based on openness, tolerance, pluralism – with an expectation that public space is truly open – tend not to add a religious dimension to the relevant oath or declaration. It is enough to commit to Res Publicae.

They conclude by recommending:

Option A: Our preferred option that is that whatever form any public profession of commitment to the Constitution, the laws of the land and a concomitant commitment to execute one’s duties fairly and in accordance with the laws takes,  it should not contain a religious element.  This is not at all directed against religion or value systems – but simply keeps with the mainstream of Republic constitutions in creating the maximum space possible for all citizens regardless of their faith or background to enter public life.  No one should be required to wear a badge before assuming public office. No one should be deterred because they don’t share the ‘official’ badge.  And no one should be forced to dissemble in order to assume public office.

Option B: We would also be prepared to accept a situation whereby an affirmation (without a religious element) could be given in lieu of an oath with a religious dimension.  This has the merit of opening up public space to all. But it does come at the cost of people bringing (or feeling the need to wear) their own badge of faith (or non-faith) into the public arena. Our main preference, however, is to remove the religious element in the relevant oaths & declarations.

The submission is now online on the Constitutional Convention website.

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