Steps being taken to achieve parity for the non-religious

 

The State is beginning to see the merits of the humanist perspective, writes DICK SPICER

EQUALITY AND parity of esteem for the non-religious community is being achieved – but at a pace so slow it can sometimes evoke justifiable impatience. On the other hand, it is important to balance this disappointing rate of progress against the backdrop of the more pressing efforts of the State over the past couple of years to avoid national bankruptcy.

That said, however, the State and its institutions have made significant beginnings in areas requiring reform. Those registering progress are education, health and law reform. Of these, the key problematic area in our State has long been securing the rights of children in primary education.

The constitutional guarantee that children in State-funded schools should not be exposed to religious teaching against parental wishes has been so eroded by the integrated curriculum and legislative protection of a school’s ethos as to be meaningless.

The State’s effort in establishing VEC-controlled primary schools wherein this constitutional right will be respected is a significant development which has to be praised as demonstrating a reforming commitment.

If these good intentions can be matched by the promised handing over of Church-controlled schools, we could be on the cusp of a proper national-school system that could accommodate all children of the nation equally.

Progress has been slow but, to get the pilot school model fit for purpose, necessarily so. The recent addition of three more such schools – before the issues of parity during the primary years or a legal guarantee of such have been resolved – could possibly be seen as hasty.

In the area of health, one has to give credit to the Health Service Executive for developing and launching a best-practice guide outlining the requirements when dealing with non-religious clientele and other minorities. Again, implementation will take time if it is to be effective, but it is a pointer to how State bodies could set about addressing the achievement of parity of esteem for all.

The Humanist Association of Ireland has been included in relevant seminars and workshops over the past couple of years. In our quest as part of the dialogue process with the Government we submitted a document entitled Equality for the Non-Religious, which laid out our areas of concern. A full consideration of the issues in that document reveals that much has yet to be addressed.

We mentioned the desire for the outdated constitutional ban on blasphemy to be removed. And, indeed, following a misguided attempt to tackle the issue legislatively and reservations expressed by many, the issue of removing it will shortly be put to the people by referendum. The opportunity is there to include deletion from the Constitution of the religious oath to become president or a judge, but is unlikely to be availed of.

Other issues have yet to be addressed in establishing parity of esteem for the large non-religious community, but reform is taking place. Within this process, it is welcome, for example, to see the Humanist Association being invited to send representatives to national commemorations and events.

The hope of more rapid reform engendered by the dialogue process may not have been fully realised, but it is important in light of the progress outlined here not to dismiss real reform – even if it is a slow, frustrating process.


Dick Spicer is chairman of the Humanist Association of Ireland