Genuinely tolerant society will not be a cold house for religion

Labelling everything as bigotry, or homophobia, hinders an inclusive and pluralist society, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

Labelling everything as bigotry, or homophobia, hinders an inclusive and pluralist society, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

FINTAN O’TOOLE made some valid points in his recent column on teachers. As all primary teacher training colleges are Christian, it is impossible for agnostics or atheists to become qualified without having to take compulsory modules in religious education. He also said that it is wrong to compel atheists or agnostics to teach religious beliefs they do not share.

He is right to raise these issues. It is in no one’s interests to cultivate hypocrisy, where people pretend to believe to get jobs, and employers turn a blind eye to the lack of enthusiasm in order not to rock the boat. The result helps no one – not teachers, not students, and not the future of the church.

It should be possible to work out a reasonable accommodation, such as a derogation from teaching religion. No doubt there would be practical problems, and strict vetting would have to apply, but parent volunteers could be trained to deliver religious education within school hours.


If atheist teachers were not happy to continue to support the ethos of the school aside from the actual teaching of faith, for example, by collecting for Trocaire, or making an Advent wreath, they would probably not be good role models for children who will have to live in a pluralist society, where respect for others’ beliefs will be essential.

In an ideal world, such derogations would be an interim measure until there was greater diversity in models of school patronage, so that no one who was uncomfortable with a faith-based ethos would have to teach in a faith-based school.

How far should derogations and reasonable accommodations go? In the unlikely event that Richard Dawkins should cease writing polemics and do an online course with Hibernia, should a Catholic school have to employ him? Given that he probably continues to spend his days doing what he enjoys most, that is, merrily denigrating religious believers, the answer is no.

We are in danger of being more sympathetic to the idea of religious freedom when it involves freedom from the necessity to practise or preach a religion, than we are to the idea that religious freedom also protects the freedom to believe and practise. Would people who support a derogation from teaching religion for atheistic teachers, also support the right of religious believers not to carry out a civil partnership ceremony for a gay or lesbian couple?

In both cases, sincerely held beliefs are at issue. In both cases, it should be possible to negotiate a compromise. For example, a registrar should only be allowed a derogation from a civil partnership registration if a substitute is available.

It is instructive to see what is happening in Britain. A black woman, Lilian Ladele, was threatened with the sack for “gross misconduct” by Islington council because of a request not to carry out such ceremonies, although other councils allow substitution. An employment tribunal found that the behaviour of some of her colleagues, including two gay people, had “the effect of violating Ms Ladele’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

The ruling said Islington council “placed a greater value on the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community than it placed on the rights of Ms Ladele as one holding an orthodox Christian belief”. A later Court of Appeal hearing, while admitting that Ms Ladele had been treated unfairly, found in favour of the council. She is now taking her case to the Supreme Court.

What pleasure a couple could take in having a ceremony performed by an unwilling person, in violation of that person’s conscience, is beyond me. Surely we can find ways to accommodate each other?

All sorts of spurious arguments are being thrown up regarding a conscience clause. Dermot Ahern suggested that such a derogation could lead to a garda who believed that wife-beating was sanctioned by the Bible not prosecuting a wife-beater. Suddenly, a person who sincerely objects to performing a civil ceremony is on a par with one who condones wife-beating.

We are hearing a lot about unintended consequences if a conscience clause were allowed. What about the fully-intended consequences? Under the proposed legislation, a registrar could face a €2,000 fine or six months in jail for refusing. In effect, a person who upholds a traditional view of marriage is now considered to be the same as a racist. Yet we were told civil partnership had no implications for marriage.

In Britain, the rights of Christians have been progressively eroded. Catholic adoption agencies have had to close because they would not place children with gay couples. A nurse was suspended for offering to pray for a patient. A flight crew member was sanctioned for wearing a small cross, although colleagues wore hijabs.

Dr John Sentamu, a Ugandan refugee who became Britain’s first black Anglican archbishop, wrote last year that “those who display intolerance and ignorance, and would relegate the Christian faith to just another disposable lifestyle choice, argue that they operate in pursuit of policies based on the twin aims of ‘diversity and equality’.

“Yet in the minds of those charged with implementing such policies, ‘diversity’ apparently means every colour and creed except Christianity, the nominal religion of the white majority; and ‘equality’ seemingly excludes anyone, black or white, with a Christian belief in God.”

We are a long way from that situation in Ireland. How we handle gay rights versus religious rights will determine whether we become a polarised society that is a cold house for religion, or a genuinely tolerant society.

And of course, there are real bigots on both sides. But labelling everything as bigotry, or homophobia, hinders the building of an inclusive and pluralist society.