This is an overview of progress towards secularism on the occasion of Atheist Ireland’s 2015 AGM at 11 am today in the Ambassador Hotel in Cork. It will be followed by a public meeting at 2:30pm in the Ambassador Hotel.
When Atheist Ireland was founded seven years ago, one of our first priorities was to make the words atheism and secularism a normal part of social and political discourse in Ireland. We have now achieved that, even though some people still misunderstand or misrepresent us.
Most but not all Irish people are now aware that atheists have the same human rights as our religious neighbours to freedom of religion or belief, equality before the law, and freedom from discrimination.
This year we raised these issues at the first ever meeting in the history of the state between a Taoiseach and an atheist advocacy group. We are now meeting senior civil servants in follow-up meetings.
Atheist Ireland also regularly raises these issues at the United Nations and the Council of Europe. While we are used to nod-and-wink politics here, international human rights lawyers are astonished at our laws. Eight separate UN and Council of Europe bodies have told Ireland that our schools breach the human rights of atheists and minority faith members.
Ireland is not a Catholic country
Let’s be clear: Ireland is no longer a Catholic country. The 2011 census showed a quarter of a million nonreligious people as the second largest worldview in Ireland after Catholicism. But our census underestimates the number of atheists by asking the leading question ‘What is your religion?’
In 2012 an international Gallup poll asked a more relevant question: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?” In that, only 47% of Irish respondents said they are religious, 43% said they are not religious, and 10% said they are convinced atheists.
So the Irish people have become more pluralist, but our laws have not. One reason is the constraints of our 1937 constitution, whose author Eamon de Valera had previously told the Dail that a circular promoting atheism, birth control, and civil and industrial emancipation was “the production of some lunatic, some degenerate, perhaps.”
Today, this anachronistic constitution buttresses an education system in which the Catholic Church controls the vast majority of publicly funded schools, and has exemptions from equality laws that allow it to discriminate against pupils, parents and teachers. Our President, Judges and Taoiseach have to swear religious oaths, and Pakistan has praised our new blasphemy law at the United Nations.
Challenging religious discrimination
Atheist Ireland works actively to challenge this religious discrimination, and to bring about an ethical secular state for a pluralist people. We also work with other groups who face discrimination in Ireland.
We are active members of the Campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the Children’s Rights Alliance, the Your Rights Right Now group, the ESC Rights Initiative, and were of the Yes Equality Campaign.
We work with human rights advocacy groups from all backgrounds in preparing joint submissions and going on joint delegations to the UN Human Rights Committee, ESC Rights Committee and Human Rights Council.
We meet with and help groups such as the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland who also suffer religious discrimination, and who support our Schools Equality PACT. We have been the only Irish group at UN level defending the rights of minority faith members in Ireland.
We have hosted international conferences on secularism and empowering women, with speakers from many groups and perspectives. We are key members of Atheist Alliance International.
We will continue this work for as long as it takes to bring about an ethical secular state for a pluralist people.
Religious Discrimination in Education
Reverend Eamon Conway recently suggested that Atheist Ireland is part of a ‘subcultural secularist elite’ influencing the education system. This invented bogeyman underlines how important the debate about the future of the Irish schools system is, both to the power of the Catholic Church and to the human rights of atheists, secularists and minority faith members.
The core question is this: should the State fund schools that treat all children, parents and teachers equally, or should it fund private bodies to control our schools based on their own ethos?
Atheist Ireland is seeking public support for the Schools Equality PACT, a major new initiative to enable everybody, regardless of belief, to support religious equality in Irish schools. PACT is an acronym for Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching, which are the four areas of change needed for schools equality.
Children have a right to attend inclusive public schools, an equal right to attend their local public school, and a right to an objective critical and pluralist education. Teachers have an equal right to work in state-funded schools, based on merit and not on their religious beliefs.
Why divesting schools will not work
Divesting some Catholic schools to new private patrons will not achieve pluralism in education. Based on an Atheist Ireland recommendation, the Oireachtas Education Committee has already warned that multiple patronage and ethos can lead to segregation and inequality.
Even with maximum divestment of the 300 schools that Educate Together is seeking, that would provide some relief for some mostly middle class well-educated secular families, but most schools would still be in areas where there is only one Catholic school, and that school would not be divested.
Also, the Catholic Church wants to trade off divesting some schools, that they don’t have the resources to continue running, in exchange for a stronger Catholic ethos in the vast majority of schools that they want to retain. So most secular families would be left with an even stronger Catholic ethos in their only local publicly funded school.
The purpose of Catholic schools
Despite the different approaches of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Rev Eamon Conway, they are both following the policy outlined by Bishop Leo O’Reilly, chair of the Commission for Catholic Education: “Ultimately, the reason for the Church’s involvement in education is that we see it as central part of the mission of the Church given by the Risen Christ to the apostles.”
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has launched a consultation about a new course called Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics. At first glance this seems like a step forward, but it will be implemented in line with Catholic ethos unless there are also changes to the Education Act and the Rules for National Schools.
Constitutionally obliged to discriminate?
Incredibly, the Government now claims that it is constitutionally obliged to allow State-funded schools to discriminate against its own citizens in this way. They base this on a Supreme Court judgment that the State must on occasion buttress discriminations which flow from the tenets of a particular religion.
However, the Government refuses to publish the legal opinions that apply that principle to specific proposed laws, such as the current Admissions to Schools Bill and the proposed amendment to the Employment Equality Act.
If passed, these two Bills will remove the right to discriminate against children and teachers on other grounds, but will retain and further institutionalise the right to discriminate against children and teachers on the ground of religion.
In the interests of democracy, the Government should publish its legal opinions on these Bills. Then the Oireachtas can fulfil its duty to balance the relevant rights in an informed way, all stakeholders can know the basis upon which the Oireachtas is making its decisions, and all citizens can participate fully in the democratic process.
We need a Schools Equality Bill
Ultimately, the only solution is to stop tweaking the symptoms of a broken system. We need a comprehensive Schools Equality Bill, that addresses at the same time the four PACT areas of Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching. If doing that requires constitutional change, then we also need a Schools Equality Referendum.