New report could give churches more privileged access to lobby EU institutions and Irish Government

The European Humanist Federation and Humanists International have expressed concern that proposals would give more influence to religious groups on European laws, and with national governments, in a dialogue process that Atheist Ireland takes part in.

A report by European Parliament Vice President Mairead McGuinness, and adopted by the European Parliament Bureau, proposes changes to the dialogue process between the EU and religious and philosophical groups under Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Atheist Ireland has taken part in meetings under this process, at European level with the Presidents of the European Commission, Parliament, and Council, and at national level with the former Taoiseach, Minister for Education, and senior civil servants.

We are now awaiting a date for our first meeting under the process with Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach. We hope that this meeting will be productive. We will highlight the concerns raised by the European Humanist Federation and Humanists International.

Our position on this dialogue process is twofold. Fundamentally, we do not believe that any organisations, religious or philosophical, should be given privileged lobbying access arising from their beliefs about whether supernatural beings give moral guidance.

However, for so long as the dialogue process exists, it would be counterproductive to secularism and human rights for us to allow religious groups a free pass to lobby the EU and national governments, without officials also hearing the secular side of the issues they are discussing.

Crucially, we do not seek special legislation to privilege atheists. Where there is religious privilege, Atheist Ireland wants to see that privilege removed. We do not want a share of the privilege for ourselves, and we will not endorse laws that treat religious and nonreligious people or groups differently.

The proposed changes to the Article 17 process

Under the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) says that:

1. The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.
2. The Union equally respects the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organisations.
3. Recognising their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations.

Amongst the most worrisome proposals is one put forward by the Vatican’s lobby in Brussels, to provide representatives of the so-called Article 17 partners privileged access to rapporteurs and shadows rapporteurs of given files. Such access would be facilitated by the Article 17 secretariat that would give access to legislative tracking tools and act in cooperation with committee secretariats.

Furthermore, the report also proposes to facilitate the access of the same organisations at national level to European Parliament liaison offices, thereby further undermining the impartiality of the institution.

Mairead McGuinness says that the proposed changes would apply to all stakeholders, and are not limited to any one group, so there would not be different levels of access for churches compared to secular groups.

But the European Humanist Federation and Humanists International have expressed concern that the process is biased towards religious groups. They say that the report claims that a consensus existed on issues where they had opposed the proposals that were put forward.

And MEPs from the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics are concerned that the report appears to endorse the views of the churches.

Atheist Ireland meetings under the dialogue process

Atheist Ireland has taken part in meetings under this process, at both European and Irish levels.

In 2010 in Brussels, we became the first Irish philosophical organisation, and the first European atheist advocacy group, to meet with the Presidents of the European Commission, European Parliament and European Council under this process.

We had not been formally invited to this meeting, but we discovered that it was happening and that it did not include any atheist representation. We contacted the European Commission and they invited us to take part.

!n 2015 Atheist Ireland met Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, and a number of senior civil servants, as a partner in the national dialogue process in Ireland with the Irish Government.

The meeting lasted more than twice its scheduled time as we explained our philosophy, our aims, and our work in promoting an ethical secular State based on human rights.

Both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education ended our meeting by saying that they had learned a lot that they had previously been unaware of, about the nature and scale of problems faced by atheists in Irish society.

Enda Kenny report to Dail about our meeting

Enda Kenny later reported to the Dail on our meeting. He said that we had discussed a secular Constitution, laws and practices, a secular education system, the constitutional and human rights of atheists, and the philosophy and aims of Atheist Ireland. He added that:

“When I met Atheist Ireland, it referred to Article 42 of the Constitution, which states: “The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.

Atheist Ireland stated that, in accordance with the wording of Article 42, atheists sought the moral as opposed to the religious education of their children. In its view, the moral aspect of the obligation contained in the provision was not being fulfilled by the State. It pointed out that religious and moral education was referred to and that the perceived failure to vindicate the moral aspect constituted discrimination. It made that point forcefully.”

Events since our meeting with Enda Kenny

Arising from our 2015 meeting with the Taoiseach and Minister for Education, we have had detailed follow-up meetings with Department officials and Ministerial advisors about the changes that we believe are needed to respect our fundamental rights.

These have included several meetings with the Department of Justice on the drafting of the referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution; with the Department of Education on the changes we are seeking on the issue of secular education; and with other officials and civil servants to discuss the issue of religious oaths in the Constitution, the wording of the religion question in the census, and the discrimination in the Civil Registration Act.

We are now awaiting a date for our first meeting with Leo Varadkar. We hope that this meeting will be productive. We will highlight the concerns raised by the European Humanist Federation and Humanists International.

We will continue with our policy that, unlike religious groups, we do not seek special legislation to privilege atheist groups. Where there is religious privilege, Atheist Ireland wants to see that privilege removed. We do not want a share of the privilege for ourselves. That is the essence of secularism: one law for all.

Atheist Ireland

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