Freedom Of Expression Is For Christians Too
Atheist Ireland has this week written an open letter to every TD in the Cavan-Monaghan Constituency and every member of Monaghan County Council. The full text of this letter is reproduced below.
Dear Minister Humphreys,
As an elected representative for the Monaghan area, I would like to seek your assistance in addressing specific human rights abuses in Monaghan Town. Article 19 within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Unfortunately, the written policy of a body licensed by Monaghan County Council, is currently abrogating the right to freedom of expression within the public spaces of Monaghan Town. Those who have elected you are entitled to expect that you will vindicate this right on their behalf.
During 2014, I made a complaint to the Equality Tribunal about Monaghan Farmer’s Market, under the terms of the Equal Status Acts. Atheist Ireland had been refused permission to provide an information stand within the market, while at the same time a number of Christian preachers were distributing religious information within the market. The Atheist Ireland case was that all citizens, whether religious or non-religious, should have equal access to public facilities.
The Atheist Ireland information stand already operates in Cork, Galway, Tralee, Limerick, Sligo and Athlone. When Atheist Ireland made an initial application to include our information stand during the Monaghan Farmer’s Market, we were refused permission and the reason given was:
“There are two people on the [Market] Committee who have been saved and are now Christian preachers. They have indicated that they could not countenance atheists being part of the Monaghan Market.”
This reason for refusing to permit an Atheist Ireland stand at the market was confirmed in writing by the Market Committee. In contrast, the conclusion of the Equality Officer after hearing evidence in the case was “that Christian literature was being distributed at the market”. However, the Equality Officer went on to conclude as follows:
“I find that by not receiving an appropriately documented written application, the [Market Committee] was deprived of an opportunity to fully consider the [Atheist Ireland] case. For this reason … the complaint must fail.”
Atheist Ireland is a volunteer organisation and we represented ourselves during the hearings, which included both a barrister and a solicitor on the other side of the table. As such, I do not wish to revisit the technicalities surrounding this legal point or dispute the conclusion of the Equality Officer. However, you may have already seen some of the reporting in The Sunday Times and elsewhere, in relation to the recommendations of the Equality Officer. I have included the relevant passages from this ruling below for your convenience.
The Equality Officer has ruled that Monaghan Farmer’s Market did not discriminate against me under the terms of the Acts but he also made some important recommendations. Specifically, he stated that in order to “avoid exposure to future litigation” that the Market Committee should either amend their articles of association or else “police their rule of ‘no religious proselytising at the market’ as strictly as possible”.
In subsequent correspondence, it has been confirmed that the Market Committee intends to follow the latter option. In particular, the Market Committee have stated that “the distribution of religious material at the market has been addressed and we will endeavour to not let it happen again”. I have copied the relevant part of this correspondence below for your convenience.
The strict policing of a “no proselytising” rule within public spaces of Monaghan Town seems like an absolutely extraordinary outcome. This appears to be a clear breach of Article 10 within the European Convention on Human Rights. If a Christian preacher in Monaghan wishes to talk with a visitor to the Monaghan Farmer’s Market about Jesus, and the visitor is very keen to listen, on what authority will the Market Committee prohibit such proselytising? The circumstances under which the human right to freedom of expression may be restricted, are extremely limited and very tightly defined. None of these conditions are met within the Monaghan Farmer’s Market and the Market Committee lacks both the competence and the means to enforce their “no proselytising” rule.
My question for you as an elected representative in this area, relates to your view of this “no proselytising” rule. We now have a Market Committee operating under a license issued by Monaghan County Council, which is strictly policing a “no proselytising” rule in public spaces within Monaghan Town. Christian preachers have been banned by the Market Committee from giving any “religious material” to citizens, even when people are very interested to receive it. Christian preachers have also been banned from talking about Jesus to citizens, even when people are very interested to listen. Is this a policy in relation to public spaces within Monaghan Town, which is acceptable to you as an elected TD for the constituency?
Atheist Ireland believes in freedom of expression for citizens of all faiths and none. Comity between those of all faith groups and those of no faith, can only be achieved if we are all allowed to openly discuss our views and opinions. Prohibitions on expressing such views within public spaces, can only serve to perpetuate division in a border area that knows perhaps too much about sectarian partitions. Banning dialogue is not a good policy prescription.
I will be very keen to hear your views on this matter at your earliest convenience. Do you and your party find it acceptable that the human rights of citizens in Monaghan should be abused? Do you and your party support the licensing by Monaghan County Council of a Market Committee, which assumes for itself the power to abrogate the human rights of citizens?
I hope and expect that you will support the full vindication of human rights for those of all faiths and none in Monaghan Town and that you will outline the steps that you will take to remedy this written policy of overt human rights abuse.