Atheist Ireland had a breakthrough dialogue yesterday with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, at the first ever formal meeting between an Irish Prime Minister and an atheist advocacy group in the history of the State.
We were represented by myself as chairperson, our human rights officer Jane Donnelly, and our blasphemy law campaign coordinator John Hamill. We also brought an atheist parent, an atheist student at and an atheist teacher to give first hand accounts of the religious discrimination they face.
The Government was represented by Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, and senior officials from the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Education and Skills, and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The meeting lasted more than twice its scheduled time as we explained our philosophy, our aims, and our work in promoting an ethical secular State based on human rights.
It marks the start of an ongoing dialogue process, in which we will have detailed follow-up meetings with Department officials and Ministerial advisors about the changes that we believe are needed to respect our fundamental rights.
After several of these follow-up meetings, we will be in a better position to judge how positive the dialogue has become in practical terms. However, we believe that the Government’s understanding of our position became greater as yesterday’s meeting went on.
As with many of our discussions with politicians, it took some time for us to get across that we are addressing not merely specific changes in laws, but also the fundamentals of human rights, including freedom of conscience, as the foundation of democracy.
Both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education ended the meeting saying that they had learned a lot that, they had previously been unaware of, about the nature and scale of problems faced by atheists in Irish society.
Atheist parent, student and teacher
At the meeting, an atheist parent, an atheist student and an atheist teacher explained the religious discrimination they have experienced in the education system. Their first hand accounts had a major impact on the meeting.
The atheist parent, Derek Walsh, told of his problems getting his five-year-old son admitted to a local school this year. A principal told Derek that his son, as a non-Catholic, was a “Category 2 boy”, to only be considered if there were any places left over after all the “Category 1” Catholic applicants had been considered.
The Taoiseach agreed that no child should be labelled a “Category 2 child”. We showed him other schools’ admission criteria that also discriminated against atheists, including one school where the children of atheists were labeled “other” and were category 12 on the list of preferred beliefs.
The scale of the problems was reinforced by the fact that the atheist student and teacher chose to remain anonymous, because of fear of further recriminations in their schools if it became known that they were complaining about the discrimination that they have faced.
The atheist student outlined how they are isolated and even bullied in their school, where a lot of social activity is organised through religion class. The atheist teacher outlined how they have been told to not only convey Catholic teaching to their pupils, but to convey it as if was their own personal opinions.
We don’t want to go into detail about these experiences, to protect the anonymity of the people concerned, but their experiences are not unique, they conveyed them effectively, and the Minister for Education apologised for what they have had to go through.
Perhaps the hardest part of the meeting from our perspective was helping the Taoiseach to appreciate the existence, never mind the scale, of the discrimination, which is so normalised in Irish society that it can seem invisible to people who are not the target of it.
We tried to convey this by asking him to consider alternative hypotheses that we are not actually seeking. What if there was even one school actively teaching students that there is no God, and even one set of Catholic parents were forced to send their child to that school?
What if the President and Judges and Taoiseach had to swear that there is no God, instead of swearing a religious oath? How did the Taoiseach feel sitting across a table from six citizens who could not aspire to hold the office he holds?
We wouldn’t dream of running other public services on the basis of the religious beliefs of citizens. A police station would not turn away an atheist crime victim until they had first dealt with all religious crime victims. Why should a publicly funded school be allowed to do this?
Both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education ended the meeting saying that they had learned a lot that they had previously been unaware of, about the nature and scale of problems faced by atheists in Irish society.
Constitutional and human rights of atheists
Jane Donnelly addressed the rights of atheists under the Irish Constitution and human rights law. This was the first time that anybody has put these arguments to an Irish Taoiseach, and we will be following up on them in the meetings with Department officials that were agreed at the meeting with the Taoiseach.
The Irish Constitution (Article 42.1) protects atheist and secular families who have exactly same inalienable rights as religious families to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.
There is a positive obligation under the Article 42.1 of the Constitution to protect the inalienable right of atheist and secular families in the education system. Successive governments over the years have interpreted the right to respect for our philosophical convictions as a negative right (the right to opt out) when there is also a positive obligation to respect our rights. The European Court recognises this positive right to respect for our philosophical convictions.
The European court of Human Rights has said that secularism is regarded as a philosophical conviction protected under Article 9 (the right to freedom of conscience) and Article II of Protocol 1 (the right to education). This means that the State has a positive obligation to respect and protect our rights. If our Constitution does not respect and protect our rights then Ireland will be in breach of all its international obligations. We are already getting criticised by the UN and the Council of Europe.
The European Court found in the Louise O’Keeffe case and that the state cannot absolve itself of the obligations to protect Convention rights in Irish National Schools and delegate that to private bodies and individuals. We have a human right to an effective remedy to vindicate our rights. This is a huge issue, as schools are not considered ‘organs of the state’ within the meaning of the European Convention on Human Rights Act. This means that there is the possibility that a case can go directly to the European Court of Human Rights such as the ABC case and not be required to exhaust domestic remedies by going through the Irish courts. We believe that it is now just a matter of time before a parent will challenge this issue through the courts.
We want to opt our children into an education that is objective, critical and pluralistic. We have had enough of a primary school curriculum that seeks to promote the moral and spiritual development of our children through religious education as this breaches our Constitutional and human rights. If the State curriculum was promoting the moral and spiritual development of all children through atheist education, we would never hear the end of it and would immediately recognise that this was breaching the rights of religious families.
The State would not contemplate a situation where hospitals were permitted to give preference to the children of religious families and would immediately see this as discrimination, but Section 7-3 (c) of the Equal Status Act sees children refused access to their only local publicly funded National school on the basis of their parents’ religious convictions. It is forbidden under human rights law to discriminate against children in this manner.
Atheist and secularists must hide their convictions in order to gain employment as teachers, and this applies to religious minorities as well. Atheist and secular teachers have very limited employment opportunities in Ireland at both primary and second level and are trained by institutions to teach the doctrine of mainly one particular church. Again the UN and Council of Europe are putting pressure on Ireland to stop discriminating in this manner.
Constitutional and legal changes needed
We highlighted several specific proposals in two briefing document that we prepare for the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education. We will follow up on these issue in the in the meetings with Department officials that were agreed at the meeting with the Taoiseach.
The State has a positive obligation to respect the rights of atheists
- Acknowledge that human rights apply to individuals, and cannot be denied by majority votes, as the Minister for Justice accepted at the UNHRC. Amend Article 40.1 on equality before the law to include principle of non-discrimination.
- Remove religious oaths (which includes Taoiseach and others), in a way that respects the right not to have to reveal your religion or belief in public, as required by UNHRC.
- Remove or amend all Constitutional clauses that give preference to religious over nonreligious beliefs.
- Repeal the eighth amendment to enable the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion.
- Stop amending laws that discriminate against atheists, in ways that they discriminate against fewer people on other grounds, but still discriminate against atheists (e.g. Admission to Schools, Employment Equality, Civil Registration, age of President).
- Amend the Defamation, Charities, Equal Status, Juries, Electoral, relevant healthcare and other laws. End State payments to chaplains, loaded census question, religious oaths and symbols in court, polling booths and councils, and daily Christian prayer in Oireachtas.
- Human-rights-proof all planned legislation with the IHREC.
- Immediate First Steps: Campaign vigorously to ensure marriage equality is passed. Include removal of religious oaths for public office alongside Presidential age vote. Within lifetime of this Government, hold a referendum to remove blasphemy.
- Amend the Civil Registration Act, that discriminates against atheists in favour of religions and humanists. Until it is amended, enforce it with integrity, and ensure all nominating bodies are compliant with the law.
Why must our children leave their human rights at the school gates?
- Vindicate inalienable right of atheist/secular parents to respect and protection for their philosophical convictions, in educating their children in publicly funded schools. (Art 42.1)
- Vindicate right of parents to not have their conscience and lawful preference violated by being forced to send their children to certain types of school. (Art 42.3.1)
- Vindicate right to a moral education for all children, separate from religion. (Art 42.3.2)
- Acknowledge the State’s direct responsibility to protect the human rights of children in schools, in accordance with the Louise O’Keeffe judgment at the European Court.
- Increase access to secular education, by divesting religious patronage and establishing non-denominational (not multi-denominational) schools, as required by UNHRC.
- Amend primary curriculum, and remove rule 68, to ensure a neutral education, even in denominational schools, outside of opt-out religion classes, as required by UNHRC.
- Ensure that all schools comply with Toledo Guiding Principles by teaching about religion and beliefs in a objective, critical and pluralistic manner.
- Immediate First Steps: Lead by example. Make all changes to respect human rights in the Model Schools that Department of Education runs directly as Patron.
- Amend Admissions to Schools Bill, to prohibit all discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religion or belief, as required by UNHRC.
- Amend Section 37 Employment Equality Bill to ban religious (and not just sexuality-based) discrimination in education and health, as required by UNHRC.
- Remove Section 7.3(c) of the Equal Status Act.
One of our most important issues is that Ireland is the only European country to have introduced a contemporary blasphemy law. At the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2009, Pakistan proposed the adoption of precise wording from the Irish blasphemy law, as part of efforts by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to limit Human Rights on freedom of conscience.
As Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, has advised Atheist Ireland to convey to the Constitutional Convention: “I wouldn’t expect any harsh verdicts being handed down in Ireland, but those countries that continue to have an intimidating anti-blasphemy practice like to quote European countries to unmask Western hypocrisy.”
At the meeting we gave the Taoiseach an open letter about the Irish blasphemy law, signed by more than forty Irish and international scientists, philosophers, writers, comedians, politicians and activists. The Guardian has published the letter.
We are happy to have started an ongoing dialogue with the Government, at the first ever formal meeting between a Taoiseach and an atheist advocacy group in the history of the State.
After several follow-up meetings with Department officials and others, we will be in a better position to judge how positive the dialogue has become in practical terms.