IN a blistering letter to The Irish Times, Atheist Ireland has described as “ridiculous” the government’s insistence that religious oaths are “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
AI’s Chairman Michael Nugent, above, and its Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly said in the letter published this week that the “public safety” card was played by the government in response to a challenge mounted against such oaths at the European Court of Human Rights, and they asked:
Is this how the Government of a republic treats its citizens? How does this vindicate the right to freedom of conscience, and equality before the law? How can Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party actively promote overt religious discrimination?
Atheist Ireland raised this issue with the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2014, and the Human Rights Committee concluded that:
The State Party should take concrete steps to amend articles 12, 31 and 34 of the Constitution that require religious oaths to take up senior public office positions, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 22 (1993) concerning the right not to be compelled to reveal one’s thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief in public.
The government is furious that Róisín Shortall, the Social Democrats co-leader, and four other public figures have gone to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the constitutional requirement that the President of Ireland and members of the Council of State, a body that advises the President, must swear an oath “in the presence of Almighty God” when taking up their roles.
The five argue that the oath excludes conscientious non-Christians and non-believers from some of the most senior public positions in the State:
Unless they are willing to publicly declare and subscribe a formula which goes against their conscience.
In 2013, six members of the Council of State called for the removal of religious language from their declarations
The Government wants the case thrown out because none of the litigants are directly affected by the requirement. It has also delivered a sweeping defence of the oath. Directly citing the European Convention on Human Rights, threw in the “public safely” defence.
This legal position, according to The Irish Times:
Almost certainly goes much further than the political stance of the current Government, which has already shown its willingness to dispense with the religious oath where it was able to do so without a constitutional referendum – in the case of witnesses in court proceedings. That was welcome and overdue.
President Michael D Higgins, above, has said he believes the religious oath should be replaced with an affirmation. In 2013, six members of the Council of State called for the removal of religious language from their declarations. The judiciary, members of which must also swear an oath on taking office, is now almost entirely secular. That is also increasingly true of the country they serve.
The social context has changed, in other words. The constitution should follow.
AI’s letter points out that as recently as last October, the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland:
Please report on the measures taken to ensure that the right to freedom of conscience and religious belief is fully respected, in law and in practice, on a non-discriminatory basis . . . Please indicate whether there have been any changes to the constitutional provisions requiring persons who take up certain senior public positions to take religious oaths.
The letter concludes:
The European Court of Human Rights has consistently found that the State cannot oblige you to disclose your religion or beliefs. Nor can it oblige you to act in such a way that it is possible to conclude that you hold, or do not hold, religious beliefs. That is intervening in the sphere of your freedom of conscience.
We have removed the law against blasphemy.
That is one step towards a secular State that respects equally everybody’s right to freedom of conscience.
Removing these anachronistic religious oaths from our Constitution is the next step.