The Religious Test to be Ceann Comhairle

The Ceann Comhairle of the Dail, Sean O Fearghail TD, has replied to Atheist Ireland’s letter about the Dail prayer. He has confirmed that the proposal that was scheduled for Tuesday will now instead be put to the house on its return after the Easter recess.

He has said that he will refer our correspondence to the Dail Committee on Procedure, and that he takes all views expressed with such considered detail very seriously.

Atheist Ireland has responded with the following letter, which we have copied to the members of the Dail Committee on Procedure. You can find their names here. Please contact them this week about this matter.

Dear Ceann Comhairle,

Thank you for your response of 12th April to our letter of 11th April.

We acknowledge your commitment to Dail reform, and in particular your recognition in 2013 that the absence of recording abstentions meant that a Member with conscientious abstentions found their participation not recorded. We also acknowledge that you must be impartial. We hope that you can combine this with protecting the ethical and legal integrity of the role of Ceann Comhairle.

Can you please consider the following points with regard to the specific role of Ceann Comhairle, and also raise them at the next meeting of the Committee on Procedure?

In our first letter we highlighted that the prayer ritual infringes on the human rights of those who have to either participate, or else indirectly publicly reveal their religious or nonreligious beliefs, as ruled on by the ECHR. But that infringement is even more serious in the case of the Ceann Comhairle, who is obliged to actually read out the prayer.

There is also another religious test for the position of Ceann Comhairle. As an ex-officio member of the Council of State, the Ceann Comhairle is obliged to swear the religious oath in Article 31.4 of the Constitution. The UN Human Rights Committee has already told Ireland that this breaches the human right to freedom of conscience and belief.

However, having to read this prayer is an even greater breach of human rights, for three reasons:

  1. The prayer obligation is continuous, as it has to be carried out out every day.
  2. The Council of State oath is theistic, so there is some ambiguity as to whether a non-Christian theist might be able to swear it, despite the other Christian theistic references in the Constitution. But the Dail prayer is specifically Christian, with no ambiguity.
  3. The Council of State oath has the legal protection of being in the Constitution, whereas the Dail prayer obligation does not. And it runs counter to Article 44.2.3: ‘The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.’

Clearly you are are personally comfortable with reading the prayer, but you might not have been, and future potential candidates may not be able to do so in conscience. Even if the Standing Order was changed to allow somebody else to read it instead, the Ceann Comhairle would still have to indirectly reveal their religious or nonreligious beliefs, which is a breach of their human rights. Also, it would mean that the Dail could not start its day’s work without a Christian being present, which would be an extraordinary situation in a pluralist 21st century Republic.

Atheist Ireland