Atheist Ireland to address UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March

Atheist Ireland has been selected to speak at a pre-session meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March, as part of the lead-up to the Human Rights Council questioning Ireland about its human rights record in May.

During the Pre-session meeting, several speakers will deliver statements. The moderator will then pose some general follow-on questions. After this, the Permanent Missions will ask the speakers further questions and/or comment on the presentations.

This is the report from the first Universal Periodic Review of Ireland in 2011.

The following is Atheist Ireland’s statement to the upcoming meeting, which we have sent to the UN today.

1. Atheist Ireland

1.1 Atheist Ireland is an Irish advocacy group. We promote atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, and we promote an ethical, secular society where the State does not support or finance or give special treatment to any religion.

1.2 Since being formed in late 2008, we have campaigned for a secular Irish Constitution, parliament, laws, government, education and healthcare systems. By secular we mean that the State should be neutral between religious and nonreligious philosophical beliefs. We would be as opposed to the State supporting atheism as we are to the State supporting religion.

2. National Consultations

2.1 Atheist Ireland made a Submission to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the Review of Ireland under the second cycle.  Atheist Ireland also attended public consultations hosted by the State.

3. Plan of the Statement and Main Recommendations

3.1 Issue 1: Freedom of Religion and Belief Overview

  • As the State now argues that it is Constitutionally obliged to buttress religious discrimination, including in publicly funded schools, it should urgently hold a Religious Equality Referendum to bring about any Constitutional changes required to meet its UN human rights obligations.

3.2 Issue 2: Law against Blasphemy

  • Amend Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution, and repeal Sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009, to remove the offence of blasphemy from Irish law.

3.3 Issue 3: Religious Discrimination in Education System

  • Overall, provide a State system of secular schools as the default option for all families. Immediately, amend or repeal Section 15 of the Education Act 1998, Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000, and Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act 1998, to oblige publicly funded schools to deliver educational services, including employment, state curriculum and enrolment, in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, and with no religious discrimination of any kind.

3.4 Issue 4: Religious Oaths

  • Replace the religious oaths in the Constitution and courts with a single neutral declaration that gives no information about the religious or nonreligious beliefs of the oath-taker.

3.5 Issue 5: Reproductive Rights and Historic Abuse

  • Repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, to enable the Oireachtas to legislate for the right to abortion. Implement full independent inquiries into symphysiotomy and Magdalen laundries.

3.6 The statement also includes more detailed recommendations.

4. Statement

4.1 Issue 1: Freedom of Religion and Belief Overview

4.1.1 First Review:

  • 10 Ireland reiterated that it was never acceptable for any government to treat national or religious or ethnic minorities as inferior.
  • 70 Ireland said the Constitution contains a provision guaranteeing freedom of religion.

4.1.2 New Developments:

  • The chairs of both major UN Human Rights Committees have since strongly criticised Ireland’s lack of separation of church and state.
  • The State has passed various laws that tackle discrimination on other grounds, but that retain the right to discriminate on the ground of religion.
  • The State now claims that it is constitutionally obliged (not merely permitted, but obliged) to allow religious discrimination to continue in order to buttress religion.

4.1.3 Recommendations:

  • Urgently hold a Religious Equality Referendum to bring about any Constitutional changes required to meet its UN human rights obligations.

4.2 Issue 2: Law against Blasphemy

4.2.1 First Review:

  • Recommendation 107.17. Withdraw the provisions entered into force on 1 January 2010 making blasphemy punishable as they may constitute an excessive limitation to the freedom of expression (France).

4.2.2 New Developments:

  • The outgoing Government agreed to hold a referendum to remove the blasphemy clause, then put it off for the incoming Government to deal with.

4.2.3 Recommendations:

  • Amend Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution, and repeal Sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009, to remove the offence of blasphemy from Irish law.
  • Either repeal the blasphemy clause or replace it with a positive clause enshrining freedom of expression. Do not replace the blasphemy clause with a Constitutional prohibition on incitement to religious hatred. Address incitement to hatred through legislation.

4.3 Issue 3: Religious Discrimination in Education System

4.3.1 First Review:

  • Recommendation 107.27. Accelerate efforts in establishing national network of schools that guarantee equality of access to children irrespective of their religious, cultural or social background (Malaysia)
  • Recommendation 107.47. Encourage diversity and tolerance of other faiths and beliefs in the education system by monitoring incidents of discrimination on the basis of belief (Turkey)
  • Recommendation 107.48. Eliminate religious discrimination in access to education (Egypt)

4.3.2 New Developments:

  • Nine different sets of United Nations and Council of Europe committee conclusions have now told Ireland that religious discrimination is breaching the human rights of atheist and minority faith children, families and teachers in Irish schools.
  • The State now claims that it is constitutionally obliged to buttress religious discrimination in the publicly funded education system.
  • The outgoing Government introduced a policy of asking the Catholic Church to divest some schools to multi-denominational Patron bodies. This has not happened. Also, if divestment was to happen, the Catholic Church is seeking a stronger Catholic ethos in the vast majority of schools that they would retain, so most secular families would be in an even worse position.
  • The State has passed or introduced new laws that claim to tackle discrimination in schools admissions and employment of teachers, but these laws retain the right of publicly-funded schools to discriminate on the ground of religion.
  • The State is preparing a new curriculum on teaching about religions beliefs and ethics, but under the current laws they cannot ensure that it will be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

4.3.3 Recommendations:

  • Overall, provide a State system of secular schools as the default option for all families. Immediately, amend or repeal Section 15 of the Education Act 1998, Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000, and Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act 1998, to oblige publicly funded schools to deliver educational services, including employment, state curriculum and enrolment, in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, and with no religious discrimination of any kind.
  • Replace the patronage system (in which most schools are publicly funded private schools, each with their own ethos) with an inclusive secular system, in which the foundation is State-run schools that are neutral between religions and atheism, and in which private ethos schools are an add-on alternative as opposed to being the basis of the school system.
  • As an interim measure for some families, and only as that, ensure the widest possible availability of multi and non-denominational schools. In areas where there is only one standalone school, enforce divestment or change of ethos in order that everybody in that area has access to a school with an ethos that is neutral between religions and atheism and does not discriminate.
  • Ensure that there are workable policies in place to accommodate children who have opted out of formal religious education. Ensure that such children are not subject to religion being integrated throughout the remainder of the curriculum, even in denominational schools.
  • Ensure that there is an effective complaints mechanism and an effective remedy, in practice and in law, to vindicate breaches of human rights in schools.

4.4 Issue 4: Religious Oaths

4.4.1 First Review:

  • 10 Ireland reiterated that it was never acceptable for any government to treat national or religious or ethnic minorities as inferior.
  • 70 Ireland said the Constitution contains a provision guaranteeing freedom of religion.

4.4.2 New Developments:

  • Religious discrimination against atheists and religious minorities continues.
  • Under the Irish Constitution, not only judges and the President, but also members of the Council of State are required to swear a religious oath. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Chief Justice, the President of the High Court, the Chairman of Dáil Éireann, the Chairman of Seanad Éireann, and the Attorney General are all ex-officio members of the Council of State.
  • In courts, religious oaths are optional, but the law governing the administering of oaths and affirmations in Ireland breaches Article 17.1 of the ICCPR. Atheists are obliged to object publicly to taking a religious oath.

4.4.3 Recommendations:

  • Replace the religious oaths in the Constitution and courts with a single neutral declaration that gives no information about the religious or nonreligious beliefs of the oath-taker.

4.5 Issue 5: Reproductive Rights and Historic Abuse

4.5.1 First Review:

  • Recommendations 108.4 to 108.9 on abortion (Norway, UK, Denmark, Slovenia, Spain, Netherlands). Ireland did not support these recommendations.
  • Recommendation 107.40. Institute a comprehensive statutory inquiry and compensation scheme in order to guarantee accountability and assist the (women and children) victims (of violence) (Thailand)

4.5.2 New Developments:

  • The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 criminalises abortion including in the case of rape and incest and of risk to the health of a pregnant woman.

4.5.3 Recommendations:

  • Repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, to enable the Oireachtas to legislate for the right to abortion.
  • Decriminalise abortion by repealing sections 22 and 23 of the Protection of life During Pregnancy Act 2013. Repeal the Abortion Information Act 1995. Provide a human rights compliant framework for abortion, in law and in practice.
  • Implement full independent inquiries into symphysiotomy and Magdalen laundries.
  • Enact prosecutions where wrongdoing is established. Adopt and implement a consistent approach, in line with international human rights law, to all inquiries into historical abuse.
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