Protect our basic human rights by separating Church and State

by Michael Nugent on January 29, 2014

Atheist Ireland has made a final submission to the Irish Constitutional Convention, asking its members to recommend a secular Constitution that respects equally the human rights of all citizens, regardless of our religious or nonreligious beliefs. The Convention members are meeting this weekend in Dublin to discuss Dail reform, and they will also consider what recommendations (if any) they might make on issues which they did not select for their final two meetings. This is what Atheist Ireland is asking them to do.

Dear Convention members,

Thank you for letting us know that you will be taking some time this weekend to consider what recommendations you would like to made, if any, to Government on those issues which were not selected for the final two meetings. From the very first line to the last, the Irish Constitution is permeated with religious, Christian and Catholic references and requirements from the Ireland of the 1930s. These are embedded in the foundation of the Constitution, and everything else is influenced by them. Only when we fix that foundation can we build future amendments on a solid basis of equality for all Irish citizens regardless of our beliefs.

The Constitution excludes many conscientious Irish citizens from even identifying with the Constitution; from holding the offices of President, Judge, Council of State member, Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Chair of Dail, Chair of Seanad, or Attorney General; from vindicating our human right to have our children educated in conformity with our philosophical beliefs; and from other basic human rights. The UN Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights, the Irish Human Rights Commission, and the Equality Authority have all made clear that Ireland is breaching the human rights of secular citizens to freedom of conscience, freedom from discrimination, equality before the law, and the rights of the child.

This week’s European Court judgment in the Louise O’Keeffe case removes yet another veil that the Government has been hiding behind in denying us our basic human rights. It may be the case that this denial of our human rights is consistent with the Constitution, in which case the Constitution would be incompatible with international human rights laws that Ireland has signed up to. If so, either the Constitution would have to be changed or else we would have to accept that the Constitution denies basic human rights to our citizens.

If any of this systematic discrimination, let alone all of it, was being directed at other citizens on account of their race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins, membership of the traveling community or sexual orientation, there would be consistent outrage until the matter was resolved in accordance with human rights, dignity, justice, empathy and compassion. If even one child of Catholic parents was forced to send their child to a school that actively taught that there is no God, we would not hear the end of it until the matter was resolved. And yet, somehow, when even worse discrimination is directed at atheists and secularists, it becomes invisible. Somehow, even a group of people like you, most of whom support the right of gay people to not be discriminated against in marriage, can look at the even more overwhelming wave after wave of systematic discrimination against atheists and secularists, and place it a distant last in your list of priorities, with only 2% of you voting to discuss it in your final sessions.

Please reconsider your priorities on this, and recommend to the Government to prioritize creating a secular Constitution, that favours neither religion nor atheism, where all citizens have our basic human rights to freedom of conscience, freedom from discrimination and equality before the law regardless of our religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Ten Reasons to Separate Church and State

1. The 1922 Irish Constitution was “a totally secular Constitution.”
– Supreme Court, Corway v Independent Newspapers, 1999, 4IR 484, 499

2. The 1922 Constitution was “a typical liberal-democratic document which would have been suited to a country of any religious complexion.”
– J Whyte, Church and State in Modern Ireland, Gill and McMillan 1980, p51

3. The 1937 Constitution “makes an open profession of Christianity.”
– Justice Barrington, The Irish Constitution: Article 44 II Church and State, 1953 81 The Irish Monthly 1, p3

4. The 1937 Constitution “indicated that the State considered it a duty to impose specifically Catholic doctrine on all citizens, irrespective of their personal convictions.”
– JJ Lee, Ireland 1912-85: Politics and Society, Cambridge University Press 1989, p203

5. In enacting the Constitution, the People “were proclaiming a deep religious conviction and faith and an intention to adopt a Constitution consistent with that conviction and faith and with Christian beliefs.”
– Justice O’Higgins, Norris v Attorney General, 1984 IR 36, 64-5

6. The 1937 Constitution “defines its ultimate notion of the good in explicitly religious terms.”
– R McCrea, Religion and the Public Order of the European Union, Oxford University Press 2010, p56

7. The Preamble is “a determined attempt to ground the authority of the State in the blessing and sanction of the Christian doctrine of God.”
– R Barrett, Church and State in Light of the Report of the Irish Constitution Review Group, 1998 5(1) Dublin University Law Journal 51, p52

8. Article 6(1) is “a clear, unequivocal statement that authority comes from God.”
– Eamon de Valera, Dail debate on Constitution

9. “The Trinitarian invocation goes much further than the phrase ‘under God’ in Article 6(1), since it aligns the subsequent text with a specific theological tradition that is not shared even by all monotheists. By doing so, it invited interpretations of our Bunreacht as a Christian Law for a Christian State.”
– D Clarke, Ireland: A Republican Democracy, a Theocracy or a Judicial Oligarchy? 2011 29 Irish Law Times 81, P83

10. “By allowing themselves to appeal to such amorphous concepts as the Christian and democratic nature of the State in order to recognise and potentially enforce rights as against the wishes of the Oireachtas, have the Courts given to themselves a carte blanche to write their own moral preferences into the fundamental law of the State?”
– O Doyle, Constitutional Law: Texts, Cases and materials, Clarus 2008, p87

See also

  • Eoin Daly, Religion, Law and the Irish State, Clarus 2012
  • Desmond Clarke, Church and State, Cork University Press 1985
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