Equality for the non-religious is long overdue


OPINION:IRELAND’S RECORD as peacekeepers with the UN is excellent. But under a different heading the story is different.

Sadly, we’re talking about human rights. We’re not talking about prisoners being held without trial or torture or anything like that; we’re talking about what might be called “white-collar” human rights.

The simplest example of this is the requirement for the President to take a religious oath on taking office. Many will ask what the problem is but, for the growing number of citizens who are non-religious, it effectively debars them from aspiring to hold this office.

In the 2006 census, 186,000 people ticked the “no religion” box and a further 70,000 chose to tick no box under this heading. This means that up to a quarter of a million people in the Republic are not religious – a substantial number to exclude from State office. The number exceeds the total of all the non-Catholic religions. How would it appear if the oath were a Catholic one which excluded all other faiths?

It’s not just the office of President that requires a religious oath; it also applies to members of the Council of State and to judges.

The UN has been on the case and I quote from the 93rd session of the UN Human Rights Committee’s report on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “The committee continues to be concerned that judges are required to take a religious oath.”

It continues: “The State party should amend the constitutional provision requiring a religious oath from judges and allow for a choice of a non-religious declaration.”

It was issues like these that were on the minds of humanists when, in 2007, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern included the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) in the structured dialogue he entered into with “churches, faith communities and non- confessional bodies”.

The HAI’s submission to the Government dealt with all areas where there was inequality for the non-religious. These included educational issues such as the rights of minorities in schools; health issues such as ethics in denominational hospitals; civil registration and the inability of humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriages; and so forth.

At our meeting with Ahern (along with six ministers and three senior civil servants), we were at pains to point out that, far from being aggressive secularists, we were merely a voice for the non-religious, a voice asking for equality for this significant and growing sector of the population.

Following the October 2007 meeting with the Government, there were to be meetings with individual departments to work through the details before meeting the taoiseach a year later to review progress. But apart from a couple of inconclusive meetings with the Department of Health, little has happened.

Of course the world has changed, and pressing issues have taken centre stage on the Government’s agenda. Human rights, however, are fundamental and should not be forgotten even in these difficult times.

The HAI is not giving up. Far from that, we are launching an awareness campaign. The submission to the Government is to be published as a pamphlet and widely circulated. Alongside this, an advertising campaign will run on the Dart, the first advertisement highlighting the requirement for a religious oath for high office.

The campaign starts on April 6th, to coincide with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights conference in Dublin. This event is being held to highlight the recommendations regarding Ireland by the UN Human Rights Committee, and three members of the committee will address the conference.

Let’s hope this conference and the activities of the HAI create some awareness and encourage the Government to consider making changes. We understand why things have been the way they are – when the Constitution was drafted in 1937 nobody could have foreseen that Ireland would change so dramatically. But Ireland is a modern republic in the 21st century and this must be recognised in our Constitution, legislation and State practices.

Brian Whiteside is a director of the Humanist Association of Ireland www.humanism.ie