A Secular State Protects A Pluralist Society – Part 2 of 5 – Dialogue

In July 2019 Atheist Ireland took part in a meeting of the Dialogue Process between the Government,  Churches, and Non-Confessional Organisations in Ireland.

This page is part 2 of Atheist Ireland’s policy document submitted to the Irish Government as part of this process. The parts of the document are as follows:

Contents of this Document
1. Overview of Atheist Ireland’s Contributions
2. Effective Structured Dialogue
3. Inclusive and Diverse Communities
4. Education
5. Other Issues

2. Effective Structured Dialogue

2.1 Why It is Important To Have Underlying principles

We proposed six principles as the foundation for this dialogue process. We believe that the process should start by adopting these or similar principles because:

  • They are consistent with the State’s duties under the Constitution, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention, and the various UN Conventions that Ireland has ratified.
  • They do not give privilege to or discriminate against any participants on the basis of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.
  • They provide an objective standard to refer to during the dialogue, instead of simply everybody arguing for what suits their own interests.

2.2 Review of the Six Principles that we Proposed

1. The first duty of the State is to protect the rights of its citizens, in this case the unconditional right to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief, and the conditional right to practice those beliefs as long we don’t infringe on the rights of others.

2. To do this, the State must remain neutral between religious and atheistic beliefs. This is both a requirement of Article 17, and also the only way that you can protect these rights, equally and fairly, for every one of us.

3. People have rights, beliefs do not. The State must protect the right of every person to be respected and treated with dignity, but you must not protect the contents of our beliefs or insist that we respect beliefs, if we consider them to be irrational or harmful or unjust.

4. Individual people, not majorities, have human rights. Indeed, as the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland, the whole point of human rights law is to protect individuals from the tyranny of the majority, and majority votes cannot be used to deny human rights.

5. The people have moved on. The State must catch up. The State must now remove legacy laws and practices that discriminate against atheists and people of minority faiths, including in schools, healthcare, religious oaths, charity law, and the Civil Registration Act.

6. This process should treat everybody equally. The next bilateral meetings should be with groups such as us, who have not yet had a bilateral meeting with this Government.

2.3 The Dialogue Process Must Have a Neutral Name

We are pleased that the Taoiseach acknowledged that the process should not have a name that privileges religious belief systems over atheistic belief systems. We also should have a name that reflects what it is, rather than an abstract name such as Dialogue of Hope. We suggest as one possibility “State Dialogue Process with Groups of Different World Views”

2.4 Secularism Means State Neutrality Between Beliefs

The Taoiseach began the meeting by using a different meaning of secularism than we do. He seemed to suggest that secularism would prevent the State from allowing religious bodies to have a place in the public square, or from funding activities engaged in by religious bodies.

We do not see secularism as ruling out either of these possibilities. For example, even a strongly secular State such as France funds faith schools in certain circumstances, on the condition that they don’t discriminate on religious grounds.

We simply argue that the State in its exercise of its functions should remain neutral between religious and atheistic beliefs, and should not give privilege to or discriminate against any people or groups on the basis of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.

2.5 We Need a Secular State to Protect a Pluralist Society

The Taoiseach began by contrasting the concepts of secularism and pluralism in policy terms. We suggest that this conflates the role of the State and the role of society.

We agree that society should be pluralist. Indeed, that is simply an observation of fact: society is pluralist, because it includes people of many different religious and atheistic beliefs. We also agree that the State’s policy should be to protect and support this pluralism.

However, we believe that the State itself must be secular, that is, neutral, precisely in order to protect and promote the pluralism of society, and as the only way to protect and promote equally everybody’s right to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief.

That is, the State must remain neutral between the many religious and atheistic beliefs of its people, and the State must not give privilege to or discriminate against people on the basis of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.

The State itself cannot be pluralist, because the State itself cannot have a multiplicity of religious and atheistic beliefs, and it should not have any religious or atheistic beliefs.

2.6 Secularism Brings Together Atheists and Religious People

Atheist Ireland has a unique working alliance with Evangelical Alliance Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland to jointly promote secular schools and human rights. It is precisely because of our joint commitment to secularism that we are able to work together without seeking State privilege for any of our respective groups. We will address this more in our elaboration on Inclusive and Diverse Communities.

2.7 People Have Rights, Beliefs Do Not

We were concerned that some participants did not seem to understand the difference between respecting the right to hold a belief, and respecting the content of the belief itself.

The State must protect the right of every person to be respected and treated with dignity, and our right to hold our beliefs, but you must not protect the contents of our beliefs or insist that we respect beliefs, if we consider them to be irrational or harmful or unjust.

The former UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religions and Belief, Heiner Bielefeld has expressed the distinction in this way:

“Rights holders are human beings who may exercise these freedoms as individuals and in community with others. While this may sound like a truism in the context of human rights in general, the right to freedom of religion or belief has sometimes been misperceived as protecting religions or belief systems in themselves.

This misperception is the source of much confusion, as it obfuscates the nature of freedom of religion or belief as an empowering right. Ignoring that may lead to the wrong assumption of an antagonism between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. Thus, it may warrant highlighting that freedom of religion or belief protects believers rather than religions or beliefs.”

As per the examples that we gave at the meeting, nobody in the room would respect (or expect others to respect) the beliefs of racism or antisemitism, and Atheist Ireland does not respect the belief that being gay is an objective disorder. Also, we do not respect the belief that abortion is murdering children, while we can respect the right of individual people to hold that belief.

This distinction becomes very important when we address the topic of education, because the NCCA State Religious Education Curriculum has as a learning outcome that children should respect beliefs and practices arising from religious beliefs.

2.8 People Have a Human Right to Not Respect Beliefs

Attempts to shield religious dogma from criticism do not represent a clash between Human Rights, but, rather, are indicative of the misapplication of Human Rights principles.

In a recent Report to the UN Human Rights Council the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Ahmed Shaheed stated that:

“55.Freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are closely interrelated and mutually reinforcing rights when they are exercised in the legal framework established by international Human Rights law.

Both rights are fundamental to a democratic society and individual self-fulfilment and are foundational to the enjoyment of Human Rights. The Special Rapporteur asserts that the cases presented in the present report are illustrative of the fact that measures for addressing the challenges posed by expression involving religion or belief are open to abuse and can be counterproductive, oftentimes victimizing adherents of myriad religions and beliefs in their application.

International law compels States to pursue a restrained approach in addressing tensions between freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. Such an approach must rely on criteria for limitations which recognize the rights of all persons to the freedoms of expression and manifestation of religion or belief, regardless of the critical nature of the opinion, idea, doctrine or belief or whether that expression shocks, offends or disturbs others, so long as it does not cross the threshold of advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

“16. According to these opponents of widening the scope of limitations, attempts to shield religious dogma from criticism do not represent a clash between Human Rights, but, rather, are indicative of the misapplication of Human Rights principles. Moreover, freedom of religion or belief does not bestow a right on believers to have their religion or belief itself protected from all adverse comment, but primarily confers on them a right to act peacefully in accordance with their beliefs

Manifestations of religion or belief, they note, must comply with the duty to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others and may be subject to limitations on those grounds. In that regard, States have an obligation to prohibit any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (Covenant, art. 20 (2)).

Proponents of restrictions on the freedom of expression also argue that limits pose an inherent threat to the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief for all, since such restrictions regularly target minority religions or beliefs whose very existence may challenge the convictions of majority religious communities. This includes the beliefs of atheists and humanists that, by their very definition, constitute blasphemy in the eyes of various faith groups”.

The Venice Commission in its Guidelines for Review of legislation pertaining to Religion or Belief stated:

“77. It is also worth recalling that an insult to a principle or a dogma, or to a representative of a religion, does not necessarily amount to an insult to an individual who believes in that religion. The European Court of Human Rights has made clear that an attack on a representative of a church does not automatically discredit and disparage a sector of the population on account of their faith in the relevant religion and that criticism of a doctrine does not necessarily contain attacks on religious beliefs as such. The difference between group libel and individual libel should be carefully taken into consideration.”

2.9 Individual People, Not Majorities, Have Human Rights

In 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland, very forcefully, on the issue of abortion, that the very raison d’être of human rights law is to protect individuals from the tyranny of the majority, and that majority votes cannot be used to deny human rights.

The UN Human Rights Committee asked Ireland why it was in breach of the human right of pregnant women to an abortion in wider circumstances than allowed by Irish law. The Irish State replied that Irish abortion law reflects the will of the Irish people, as allowed under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The UN Human Rights Committee said that that was a completely unacceptable reason for denying human rights, and that the very core of human rights law is a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. After a break in the session, the Irish Justice Minister Frances FitzGerald formally withdrew the remark and accepted that “the majority will does not and can not derogate from human rights obligations.”

Yuval Shany of the UN Human rights Committee said:

“I find this argument to be completely unacceptable, I should say, and one that strikes at the very core of human rights law as a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority, and one that cuts against the very raison d’être of having an international regime of universal human rights protections. And I call on the State Party to consider withdrawing that statement, on the ability of the Irish State to deviate from the Covenant at will, and to come up with some other explanations for why their laws and practices on abortion are compatible with the Covenant.”

Yuji Iwasawa of the UN Human Rights Committee added:

“I would like to join my colleague Mr Shany in pointing out that human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote in the Parliament. Arguments to justify a deviation from the protection of human rights under the Covenant by invoking article 25 of the Covenant cannot be accepted.”

Cornelis Flinterman of the UN Human Rights Committee added:

“There is no disagreement that a full and free discussion is crucial in any society, and that it is the cornerstone of any democratic and free society, as reflected also in our General Comment number 34 in which our former Irish member played such an important role, Michael Flaherty. Yet the outcome of such a discussion, even if it is full and free and informed, the outcome of such a discussion in the form of a parliamentary majority decision can never be used as an argument to legitimise the violation of substantive rights under the Covenant. As has been said, such an argument would indeed undermine the essence of the human rights framework both domestically and internationally.”

This distinction also becomes very important when we address the topic of education. The Taoiseach referred to more divestment of patronage as a way of protecting the rights of minorities, but suggested that in areas with only one school we must also consider the rights of majorities.

We believe the State should reconsider this approach. The European Court has said that the right to respect for parents convictions is an absolute right, and not one to be balanced against the rights of others. In order to achieve this, the current balancing of rights must be reconsidered.

The reason that parents have the right to ensure that their children are educated in conformity with their convictions is not because they are in a minority or in the majority. It is because they are individuals, with inalienable constitutional rights as individuals.

This is why plurality of patronage will not lead to plurality in education. State policy should vindicate equally the right of every individual parent and child to attend their local school without discrimination, regardless of their beliefs.

2.10 This Process Should Treat Everybody Equally

The Government has already met bilaterally with some Christian churches. The next bilateral meetings should be with groups such as Atheist Ireland, who have not yet had a bilateral meeting with this Government despite the Government agreeing to schedule one.

We were also concerned that the Plenary Meeting had one exception to its otherwise fair practice of treating each belief group equally. That practice, broadly speaking, was that the Government representatives listened to everybody then responded collectively to the meeting.

But during the session on education, there was a lengthy one-to-one dialogue between the representative of the Catholic Church and the Minister for Education. The Catholic Church was the only group that was given this privileged position at the meeting, of being engaged with on a different level to the rest of us.

Contents of this Document
1. Overview of Atheist Ireland’s Contributions
2. Effective Structured Dialogue
3. Inclusive and Diverse Communities
4. Education
5. Other Issues

Atheist Ireland

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