Atheist Ireland submission to European Framework Convention on National Minorities (FCNM)

On Monday 27 February, Atheist ireland met with a delegation from the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), a monitoring body of the Council of Europe. Here is a report of the meeting. We also gave them this written submission.

Article 15 / Article 4

Under the Irish Constitution the President, judges and members of the Council of state are required to swear a religious oath. The preamble to the Constitution has been invoked in the courts in support of various views.

Recommendations

  • Remove the requirement for the President, judges and Council of State to swear a religious oath in the presence of Almighty God (Arts 12, 31, 34), and for the President and judges to ask God to direct and sustain them (12, 34), and replace these with a single neutral declaration that does not reveal any information about the person’s religious beliefs.
  • Remove the references to 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 (6); the homage of public worship being due to Almighty God and the state holding his name in reverence (44); and the glory of God (closing line).
  • Remove Section 3.1(c) and 3.4 of the Charities Act 2009, which privileges the advancement of religion over non-religious life stances.

Article 4 and 12

Since the comments of the Advisory Committee in 2007 (para 98 and 99) nothing has changed on the ground for minorities in the Irish education system. Schools are publicly funded but essentially private. Schools in Ireland are not ‘organs of the state’ within the meaning of the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2004. The Irish State cedes control of education to the interests of private bodies and institutions and it has put in place legislation that enables private bodies to discriminate against minorities in the education system.

Section 7 3 (c) of the Equal Status Act permits religious schools to discriminate in access and Section 12.4 and 37.1 of the Equality Acts permits religious schools and hospitals to discriminate in employment in order to uphold their ethos. Section 15 – 2 (b) of the Education Act 1998 obliges Board of Management to uphold the Characteristic Spirit (ethos) of the Patron.

There is a Constitutional right to opt out of religious instruction class in any school but the State does not fund the supervision of children who are opted out. Parents are responsible for the supervision of their children if they opt them out of religion classes, religious ceremonies and prayers.

The State does not oblige schools to deliver the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. Religious education is integrated into the curriculum and the daily life of the school and it is therefore impossible for parents to opt out their children from religion. Schools do not inform parents where exactly they are integrating religion into the daily life of the school and the school subjects and it is therefore impossible for minorities to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

The Irish Supreme Court recognises that a religious ethos influences children and that a school is not obliged to change its general atmosphere (ethos) in order to accommodate minorities.

Minorities have no choice but to send their children to schools that operate a religious integrated curriculum (ethos).

As part of their Characteristic Spirit (ethos) some schools have a religious symbol on their uniform. This is nearly always a Christian cross and consequently minorities have no choice but to send their children to school wearing the religious symbol of the religious majority in the area.

In their Report (ACFC/SR/III(2011)004) the State refers to the New VEC Community Schools (page 51). The Irish State has already informed the UN that these schools are Interdenominational not non-denominational. Minorities are still responsible for the supervision of their children if they opt them out of religious formation and ceremonies.

The Dept of Education has made an agreement with the Catholic Church that the education for Catholic children in these schools will be on a denominational basis.

There is no legal guarantee that the curriculum will be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

These schools are introducing a religious education course where children will be identified and segregated according to the religious and philosophical convictions of their parents. As in the rest of the school system there is no access to an effective remedy in practice and in law.

In the State Report (para 161 page 51) the Government refer to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. The Interim Report from the Forum was issued on the 17th of November 2011.

Unfortunately this Report will not change anything on the ground for minorities. Please see Atheist Ireland’s response to this Report as it sets out clearly all the issues in relation to human rights.

In order to become a teacher in Ireland more or less one has to pass exams in teaching the Catholic or Church of Ireland faith. This is not just teaching about faith. All teacher training colleges are denominational. They are publicly funded but controlled by the Churches. The Bishops of Dublin and Limerick have a veto over some public service jobs in the colleges

(that have nothing to do with teaching religion e.g senior positions, president etc) and also have an automatic block vote on the Board of Governors. Churches are excused from Freedom of Information legislation so do not have to offer any explanations.

Recommendations

  • Irish Constitution: Amend Article 44, on Religion, to explicitly give equal protection to religious and nonreligious philosophical believers.
  • Irish Constitution: Amend Article 40.1 on equality before the law with the principle of non-discrimination.
  • Remove Section 7 3 (c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 to ensure that children have a guaranteed access to educational establishments without discrimination of any kind.
  • Remove Section 12.4 and 37.1 of the Equality Acts which permit schools and hospitals to discriminate on the grounds of religion.
  • Ensure that all children have equal access to a basic moral, intellectual and social education in schools (Article 42.3.2) and not one just permeated by religious values.
  • Amend Section 15 of the Education Act 1998 to ensure that the curriculum in all schools is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. Ensure that the rights of those parents seeking secular education for their children are recognised therein.
  • Enact legislation to ensure that a common ethics course be an integral part of all B.Ed and Graduate Diploma programmes in the colleges for student teachers based on human rights and equality and also in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles.
  • Reform the Governance of state funded teacher training colleges to remove the authority of religious bodies.

Articles 7 and 9

In 2010 Ireland introduced a blasphemy law despite having informed the Venice Commission in 2007 that in general the law provides adequately for these matters.

For an analysis of the Irish Blasphemy law please see http://blasphemy.ie/ at 18.58. Prof David Nash

of Oxford Brookes University discusses the Irish Blasphemy law. The Council of Europe Commission on Democracy through Law (“Venice Commission”) called upon COE member states in 2008 to repeal their respective legislation on Blasphemy and that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished (which is already the case in most European States) and should not be introduced.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee in their General Comment No. 34 stated that Blasphemy laws are incompatible with Article 19 of the Covenant.

Despite this Ireland introduced a Blasphemy law in a country where the non-religious are second class citizens.

Recommendations

  • Irish Constitution: Amend Article 40.6.1 to remove the offence of blasphemy.
  • Remove Section 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009 (blasphemy offence).
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