Religious oaths and the Constitution
Sir, – Atheist Ireland supports the five Irish citizens who are taking a European Court of Human Rights challenge to the religious oaths that must be sworn by the Irish president, judges and members of the Council of State, which includes the taoiseach, tánaiste, chairs of the Houses of the Oireachtas, and others.
David Norris, Róisín Shortall, John Brady, David McConnell, and Fergus Finlay are all credible aspirants for some of these offices.
If elected or appointed, they would have to either decline the office or else swear a religious oath that is against their conscience.
Former tánaiste Eamon Gilmore faced this dilemma as a member of the Council of State. He was publicly on record as saying that he does not believe in God. But his legal advice was that he had a constitutional duty to swear the oath.
If instead, a person taking these offices 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.
Alongside this court case, Atheist Ireland will continue our One Oath For All campaign, seeking a referendum to replace these discriminatory oaths, so that all citizens of our republic can be treated equally regardless of our religious or non-religious beliefs.
In 2014, after Atheist Ireland met with the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, the committee told Ireland to replace these oaths, “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”.
This means that these oaths should not merely be supplemented by a secular alternative.
The European Court of Human Rights has already found that a state should not compel someone to behave in a way that, even indirectly, causes them to publicly reveal their 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.
There should simply be one oath for all, declaring loyalty to the Constitution, State, and people, that does not reveal anything about the person’s religious or non-religious beliefs.
Our Constitution should not give privilege to either religious or atheist citizens. – Yours, etc,