Atheist Ireland, Evangelicals, and Ahmadis meet Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman

Atheist Ireland, along with our colleagues from the Evangelical Alliance and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, met Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman this week. It was a very constructive meeting at which we discussed:

  • The concept of freedom of religion or belief in human rights and constitutional terms, with particular reference to Irish government and our equality laws.
  • The recent Concluding Observations given to the Irish state by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) with particular reference to education.
  • Specific examples of how atheists, Evangelicals, and Ahmadi Muslims (as well as other religious or belief minorities) are discriminated against in Irish law and society.

As always, our three groups highlighted our shared commitment to secularism and human rights, as well as areas of discrimination relevant to each of us. Here are the issues that Atheist Ireland raised.

1. The concept of freedom of religion or belief in human rights and constitutional terms, with particular reference to Irish government and our equality laws.

Human Rights

In 2019 the International Commission of Jurists, composed of 60 judges and lawyers from all regions of the world, published a Primer on International Human Rights Law and Standards on the Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion or Belief. Its opening paragraph unambiguously states that this is a wide-ranging right:

“encompassing the right to freedom of thought and personal convictions in all matters, and protecting the profession and practice of different kinds of beliefs, whether theistic, non-theistic or atheistic, and the freedom not to disclose one’s religion or belief. International law also guarantees and protects the right not to have a religious confession.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) General Comment Number 22 interprets Article 18 of the Treaty. It includes:

“1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thoughts on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief… The freedom of thought and the freedom of conscience are protected equally with the freedom of religion and belief… this provision cannot be derogated from, even in time of public emergency.

2. Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed… The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons…”

In Leirvåg and others v Norway in 2004, the United Nations Human Rights Committee considered a complaint under the ICCPR from parents with a non-religious humanist life stance. The Human Rights Committee concluded:

“The scope of article 18 covers not only protection of traditional religions, but also philosophies of life, such as those held by the authors.”

The European Court of Human Rights enforces the European Convention on Human Rights. Its Guide on Article 9 includes the following:

“25. Article 9.1 of the Convention contains two strands, one on the right to hold a belief and the other on the right to manifest that belief: the right to deeply hold any belief (whether religious or not) and to change one’s religion or beliefs. This right is absolute and unconditional; the State cannot interfere with it, for instance by dictating what a person believes or taking coercive steps to make him change his beliefs (Ivanova v. Bulgaria, § 79; Mockutė v. Lithuania, § 119).”

The Venice Commission is a body within the Council of Europe. Its full title is the European Commission for Democracy through Law. Together with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, it has published Guidelines for Review on Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief. This includes:

“A3. Religion or belief. International standards do not speak of religion in an isolated sense, but of “religion or belief.” The “belief” aspect typically pertains to deeply held conscientious beliefs that are fundamental about the human condition and the world. Thus, atheism and agnosticism, for example, are generally held to be entitled to the same protection as religious beliefs. It is very common for legislation not to protect adequately (or to not refer at all to) rights of non-believers. Although not all beliefs are entitled to equal protection, legislation should be reviewed for discrimination against non-believers.


Article 44.2.1 states that:

“Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.”

The courts have recognised that Article 44.2.1 protects parents with philosophical convictions.
In the High Court in 2011, Justice Hogan stated that:

“35. There is thus no doubt at all but that parents have the constitutional right to raise their
children by reference to their own religious and philosophical views.”

“27. Along with the guarantee of free speech in Article 40.6.i, Article 44.2.1 guarantees freedom of conscience and the free practice of religion. Taken together, these constitutional provisions ensure that, subject to limited exceptions, all citizens have complete freedom of philosophical and religious thought, along with the freedom to speak their mind and to say what they please in all such matters….”

(AB v Children’s Hospital Temple Street & CD & EF –January 2011

In McGee v Attorney General, Justice Walsh stated that:

“The whole context in which the question of conscience appears in Article 44 is one dealing with the exercise of religion and the free profession and practice of religion. Within that context, the meaning of Article 44.2.1º is that no person shall directly or indirectly be coerced or compelled to act contrary to his conscience in so far as the practice of religion is concerned and, subject to public order and morality, is free to profess and practise the religion of his choice in accordance with his conscience. Correlatively, he is free to have no religious beliefs or to abstain from the practice or profession of any religion.”

Justice Barrington stated in the Supreme Court in Corway v Independent Newspapers that:

“The Constitution also introduced (in Article 40.1) a specific guarantee of equality before the law to all citizens as human persons. The effect of these various guarantees is that the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It promises to hold his name in reverence and to respect and honour religion.

At the same time it guarantees freedom of conscience, the free profession and practice of religion and equality before the law to all citizens, be they Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, agnostics or atheists. But Article 44 goes further and places the duty on the State to respect and honour religion as such. At the same time the State is not placed in the position of an arbiter of religious truth. Its only function is to protect public order and morality.”

In Mulloy v Minister for Justice, Justice Walsh stated in the Supreme Court that:

“In my view, the State is not permitted by the Constitution to do this. The reference to religious status, in both the Irish text and the English text of the Constitution, relates clearly to the position or rank of a person in terms of religion in relation to others either of the same religion or of another religion or to those of no religion at all.

Thus it ensures that, no matter what is one’s religious profession or belief or status, the State shall not impose any disabilities upon or make any discrimination between persons because one happens to be a clergyman or a nun or a brother or a person holding rank or position in some religion which distinguishes him from other persons whether or not they hold corresponding ranks in other religions or whether or not they profess any religion or have any religious belief, save where it is necessary to do so to implement the guarantee of freedom of religion and conscience already mentioned.”

2. The recent Concluding Observations given to the Irish state by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) with particular reference to education.

With regard to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, these include:

21. The Committee urges the State party to guarantee the right of all children to practice freely their religion or belief, including by: (a) Amending the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 and the Equal Status Acts to remove any exceptions to ensuring a child’s right to education in all primary and secondary schools based on religious or “ethos” grounds and to establish statutory guidelines to ensure children’s right not to attend religious classes;

Amending the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 and the Equal Status Acts will ensure that all children regardless of their religion or belief will have access to their local schools without religious discrimination. Currently non-Catholic primary schools and all secondary schools can discriminate in access based on religion, and all schools can refuse access to a child if they believe the child undermines the school’s ethos.

Having statutory guidelines on the right to not attend religious instruction will mean that the human and constitutional right to not attend religious instruction will be given practical application on the ground. Currently children are left sitting in the religion class and are not supervised outside the class. This concluding observation reflects Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution which guarantees the right to not attend religious instruction and the duty of the state to vindicate this right, and makes it a condition of state aid to schools.

Article 44.2.4 reads:

“Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.”

Burke v Minister for Education (leaving cert case) includes a distinction between policy and administration. The court found that the Department of Education while translating policy into an administrative scheme has a duty to vindicate constitutional rights.

Every relevant organ of the state ignores the constitutional duty to enforce Article 44.2.4. Because this is a funding article this means that there is ongoing misuse of state funds contrary to the constitution. We have been trying to get the Oireachtas to take responsibility for the right of students to not attend religious instruction under Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution. We made a complaint to the Oireachtas Education and Public Accounts Committee regarding the misuse of public funds by the Department of Education for failing to administer this right when funding schools. We have complained to the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Attorney General. We have also met with Department, the NCCA, the ETBI, and the Catholic Education Partnership. We will be meeting the teachers’ unions over the summer.

Justice Barrington in the Supreme Court in the Campaign Case confined the influence of religious ethos to the general atmosphere of the school and not to curriculum subjects, and even then the ethos can only influence children to some degree. This degree has never been tested.

The Concluding Observations also include:

21(b) Developing a time-bound strategy, with adequate resources, for meeting its targets for increasing the availability of multi-denominational schools by 2030, and setting a target with a time-bound strategy and adequate resources for increasing the availability of non-denominational schools.

Providing non-denominational schools is the only way to provide secular education in Ireland. At present there are no non-denominational schools (only multi-denominational schools, which are religious schools). During follow-up questions in Geneva, the Irish State admitted that it has no plans to open any non-denominational schools. The UN has now specifically told the state to do this.

3. Specific examples of how atheists, Evangelicals, and Ahmadi Muslims (as well as other religious or belief minorities) are discriminated against in Irish law and society.

From the perspective of atheists, this includes:

1. Secular Education

Address religious discrimination in the education system, as outlined above. Also:

  • Ensure that the constitutional rights of all parents are respected in the education system.
  • Establish a secular State education system and ensure, as raised by the UN Human Rights Committee, that nondenominational primary schools are widely available.
  • Ensure that all schools convey all parts of the curriculum, including religious education, in an ‘objective, critical and pluralistic manner’, as ruled by the European Court of Human Rights.
  • Provide effective remedies for parents to vindicate, in practice and law, their human right to ensure that their children’s education is not counter to their convictions.
  • Respect the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the State cannot absolve itself from responsibility for human rights violations by delegating its responsibilities to private bodies.

2. Religious oaths in the Constitution

  • The President, and members of the Council of State (which includes the Taoiseach, Tanaiste, and other office holders) have to swear a religious oath, without exception, in order to take up their offices.
  • These public office-holders should 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 1996 Constitution Review Group raised the difficulty of judges swearing alternative oaths. This would undermine the impartiality of the justice system, by creating the impression that Ireland had religious judges and non-religious judges.

3. Secular Laws

  • Amend the Equalities Acts to replace ‘religion’ with ‘religion or belief’.
  • Amend the Employment Equality Act 1998 and Equal Status Act 2000, which allow churches, schools and hospitals and training colleges to discriminate on the grounds of religion.
  • Amend the Civil Registration Act 2004, so that religious and nonreligious bodies are treated equally when nominating solemnisers.
  • Amend the Charities Act 2009, which includes the advancement of religion but not of atheism as a charitable purpose; and presumes that a gift for the advancement of religion is of public benefit.
  • Amend the Electoral Act to ensure that churches are subject to political funding regulations on the same basis as secular advocacy groups.
  • Amend the Juries Act 1976, which exempts priests and religious ministers from jury duty.
  • Examine all existing and future laws to ensure that there is one law for all, based on rights and compassion and not religious doctrine.

4. Public Administration

  • End the prayer that starts each parliamentary day which asks the Christian God to direct every action, word and work of our parliamentarians.
  • Ensure that neither the Government, nor any State institutions, nor any State-funded bodies, give preferential treatment or access to any person or organisation or category of people, on the basis of their religious beliefs.
  • Ensure that all aspects of Government are conducted consistently with the State’s international obligations on human and civil and other personal rights.
  • Stop treating the Holy See/Vatican as a State. It is the headquarters of a world religion, and it does not have the legal attributes of a real State.
  • Stop State payments to chaplains in schools, hospitals, the army and other institutions.
  • Remove the requirement for persons in court to choose between a religious or nonreligious oath, and replace these with a single neutral declaration that reveals no information about the person’s religious beliefs.

5. Secular Healthcare

  • Establish a secular State healthcare system where decisions are based on compassion, human rights and the medical needs of patients, and not on religious ethics.
  • Ensure that no religious values or activities or environments are imposed on patients who do not share those religious beliefs.
  • Remove the traditional privileges that religious bodies have in healthcare service provision and decision-making.

6. Other Constitutional Clauses

  • Remove the references to all authority coming from the Holy Trinity and ‘our’ obligations to ‘our’ divine Lord Jesus Christ (preamble); powers of government deriving under God from the people (6.1); the homage of public worship being due to Almighty God and the State holding his name in reverence (44.1); and the glory of God (last line).
  • Amend the clause on equality before the law to include the principle of non-discrimination (40.1).
  • Rewrite the Article on education to explicitly provide for State secular education, and remove the duty of parents to provide for religious education of their children (42).
  • Rewrite the Article on religion to cover freedom of thought, conscience and religion (44).
  • Rewrite or remove other Articles influenced by Roman Catholicism e.g. women and mothers having a life and duties in the home (41.2).
Atheist Ireland