A Secular State Protects A Pluralist Society – Part 5 of 5 – Other Issues

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 5 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

5.1 Religious Oaths in the Constitution

Atheist Ireland runs a ‘One Oath For All’ campaign, to enable conscientious atheists and other non-Christians to hold the office of President, Judge, Taoiseach, or other members of the Council of State.

Currently, in order to take office as President, Judge, or Taoiseach, we have to swear a religious oath that would force us to dissemble about our beliefs, and breach our human right to freedom of conscience and belief.

We need a referendum to replace these religiously discriminatory oaths in our Constitution, so that all citizens of our Republic can be treated equally regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.

These public office-holders should instead make a single declaration of loyalty to the Irish Constitution, State, and people, that does not reveal anything about the person’s religious or nonreligious beliefs.

The oath that the President must swear is contained in the Constitution (Article 12).

While it is described as a declaration, it is clearly a religious oath. It is a solemn promise, invoking a divine witness described as Almighty God, regarding the President’s future action or behaviour, and asking Almighty God to direct and sustain him or her.

It is clear from the Preamble that the ‘Almighty God’ involved is the Christian God, explicitly naming ‘the Most Holy Trinity’ and ‘our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ.’

If instead, in order to become President, the Constitution required that an elected candidate had to swear that there is no God, everybody would immediately realise that this would be a breach of their rights. But there is a blind spot when the discrimination is the other way around.

A similar religious oath exists for Judges and members of the Council of State.

The Council of State includes the Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Chairs of the Dail and Seanad, Chief Justice, Presidents of the High Court and Court of Appeal, Attorney General, former Presidents, former Taoisigh, former Chief Justices, and seven nominees of the President.

Our Constitution should vindicate the right to freedom of religion or belief of every citizen, regardless of whether those beliefs are religious or philosophical. But our Constitution should not give preference or privilege to the beliefs of either religious or atheist citizens.

5.2 Amending the Civil Registration Act

During the session on structured dialogue, the Humanist Association of Ireland called for the amending of the Civil Registration Act. We agree with the HAI about this.

This has been a major campaign issue for Atheist Ireland since we made a detailed submission to all members of the Oireachtas during the debate on the then Civil registration Amendment Bill.

The Civil Registration Amendment Act is the most overtly discriminatory law that has been passed in Ireland since Atheist Ireland was founded.

For arbitrary reasons, it applies different legal standards for religious and secular groups who can solemnise marriages. Among these different legal standards is that a secular group that solemnises marriages may not promote a political cause, whereas a religious group can. This places religious groups at a particular advantage over secular groups in the public sphere.

It also discriminates between different secular bodies, creating a three-level hierarchy of religious discrimination. This is because the original Bill was intended to facilitate specifically the Humanist Association of Ireland, rather than secular bodies generally.

The Government claims that this discrimination has a legitimate aim, which is to ensure that the institution of marriage is protected, so we have tried to find out if there a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised.

What we have found is that this government has just brought in a new law that directly discriminates against the non-religious and undermines our human rights without any ratio of proportionality to their stated aim of protecting marriage.

Equality before the law without discrimination is a basic principle in the protection of human rights. It is a principle worth fighting for, as inequality and discrimination undermine human rights. Atheist Ireland campaigns for equality and non-discrimination.

Minister Joan Burton in the Dail said that the reason for the different legal standards is that only stable, long-standing and reputable organisations should qualify to solemnise marriages, and that nobody in the Oireachtas wants a situation in which Elvis impersonators can solemnise marriages.

Yet religious bodies that solemnise marriages have successfully nominated the following:

  • Psychic mediums, tarot card readers, public entertainers, ghost whisperers and ghost busters (Ministers of the Spiritualist Union of Ireland).
  • People who have overseen a culture of covering up child sex abuse, and lied to and positively misled a state inquiry into child sex abuse, and sworn victims of child sex abuse to silence (Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church).
  • People who have defaulted on six-figure debts, and failed to file income tax returns (Pastors of the Abundant Life Christian Centre and Victory Christian Church).

The application of the law has also been implemented in a typically Irish nod-and-wink way.

  • The Humanist Association of Ireland has promoted political causes with impunity since it started nominating solemnisers for marriages.
  • Its solemnisers are overtly charging fees as personal entrepreneurs of up to €500 a wedding, despite Section 55-1-(c)(ii) of the Civil Registration Act forbidding solemnising marriages for profit or gain. Some of its solemnisers are even registered for VAT.

5.3 Strengthening the Standards in Public Office Law

During the session on structured dialogue, the Humanist Association of Ireland called for the weakening of the funding restrictions on third parties for political purposes under the Standards in Public Office law. We disagree with the HAI about this.

The suggestion was made, and seemed to be accepted in the State response to the question, that this law was not operating as intended, and that it was restricting the ability of civil society groups to function. We disagree with both of these assertions.

The SIPO law is operating as it was intended to, as is clear from the Oireachtas debates when it was passed. The change that some people are complaining about is that SIPOC has been able to apply it more robustly since 2015. The reason for this is that the law was then amended, making it an offence to fail to co-operate with enquiries made by the Commission.

Atheist Ireland is registered with the SIPO Commission as a Third Party. We have never found SIPOC to be ambiguous or inconsistent in their interpretation or enforcement of the Act. Complying with it has not in any way prevented us from functioning effectively.

We suggest that the SIPO law needs to be strengthened not weakened. This would enable us, and other Non-Governmental Organisations, to campaign on human rights issues, on a fair and equal basis, in a battle of ideas not bank accounts.

Under human rights law as reflected in the IHREC Act, each person has a fair and equal opportunity to participate in the economic, political, social or cultural life of the State. We ask you to vindicate this right.

We ask you to consider the following ways that the SIPO law should be strengthened:

  • The SIPO law should continue to apply to all parties, including third parties, at all times, and not just during election or referendum campaigns.
  • While maintaining limits on political donations, the trigger for being accountable should be moved away from political donations and towards political spending.
  • Both political spending and political donations over a set threshold, and their sources, should be published immediately.
    The law should be modernised to cover international social media campaigns that can influence our democracy from abroad.
  • For referendum campaigns, there should be public funding for both sides, limits on spending, and no anonymous donations, as recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly.

Atheist Ireland has made a submission on this issue to the consultation process on the establishment of an electoral commission. We would like to be invited to any dialogue processes arising from these written submissions.

5.4 The Census Figures on Religion are Unreliable

The minimalist change to the religion question in the 2021 census will mask, but not stop, the relentless increase in the number of nonreligious people in Ireland.

Some change to the religion question was inevitable, as the results were increasingly not reflecting reality, but this is the smallest improvement to the question that could have been made.

The old question was ‘What is your religion?” That was a leading question, that resulted in a higher figure for religion, by assuming that the respondent is a member of a religion.

Atheist Ireland had argued for the question ‘Do you practice a religion?’ followed by ‘If so, what religion do you practice?’ That would have been a more neutral question, and would have given a more accurate figure in the census results.

The census has a practical purpose, which is to assist the government and local authorities in planning the allocation of resources, as well as the size of constituencies for elections.

The CSO website says that the census statistics are essential for planning the provision of education, health care, and employment, including likely demand for schools and health care facilities, and areas of relatively high unemployment.

It is the practice of religion, not people’s inner beliefs, that is relevant to this purpose. For example, where is the best place to build a new place of worship, what are the traffic and resource implications of likely religious ceremonies, etc.

The new question for 2021 is ‘What is your religion, if any?’ This is slightly better than the old question, but is still a leading question, as it assumes that religion is the default, and that not having one is an aberration.

The new question will still underestimate the number of nonreligious people in the country. The current number is in reality is far higher than the one in ten nonreligious shown in the 2016 census results.

The current results show an absurdly small number of atheists, because of yet another flaw in the question. There is no tick-box on the census form for atheist. There is, however, a write-in box that says “Other religion, if any.”

A small number of atheists write the word “atheist” in that box, either as as a result of misreading the question or for some personal reason. But most atheists do not do this, because atheism is not a religion.

So most atheists tick the “No religion” box. It is likely that most people of no religion (about 10% in the last census) are atheists, but the census format does not allow an accurate calculation of the number of atheists in Ireland.

Also, some self-identified Catholics are atheist. At the time of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, an opinion poll showed that 15% of Irish Catholics don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, and 8% don’t believe in God, which should be a low hurdle for being a Catholic.

Atheist Ireland had also argued for the check-boxes to be removed entirely, and for a return to the write-in answer that had been used for a century until the check-boxes were introduced in 2002, and that are now given to the five highest religions from the previous census.

These check-boxes overstate those religions that are given a check-box. Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, and Methodist all dropped consistently from the 1960s to the 1990s. When given check-boxes, they all increased in 2002. Methodist doubled when given the check-box in 2002, then halved when it was taken away in 2011.

During the consultation process, the Census office had argued for a minimalist approach to changing the question, because they said it was important to be able to compare results from census to census.

Atheist Ireland had argued that it was more important to get accurate results, rather than to be able to compare one set of flawed results with another. In any case, the current question has only been there since 2002. We will continue to publicise the flaws in the census question on religion, despite the new question being slightly better than the old one.

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