Atheist Ireland has written to President Michael D Higgins asking that he send the Civil Registration Amendment Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality on the grounds that it discriminates against non-believers.
The group has also written to the Irish Human Rights Commission asking that the Bill be examined from a human rights perspective.
In a statement yesterday, Atheist Ireland said: “We welcome the intention of this Bill to make our law more inclusive.
The Bill “continues the discrimination in the Act that it is amending, which is discrimination in favour of religious people and against nonreligious people, and it adds new discrimination, this time between non-religious people who have different philosophical and non-confessional beliefs,” the statement added.
“However the law regulates how people can legally solemnise marriages, the law should treat all religious and nonreligious people and bodies equally, and should not discriminate on the ground of religion or belief,” it said.
Bill for secular marriages passes in Irish Senate, but it needs to be amended to treat all religious and secular bodies equally
The Irish Senate yesterday passed a Bill enabling secular bodies to nominate people who can legally solemnize marriages. Currently only the State or a religious body can do this. The Humanist Association of Ireland has for years nominated people who can conduct marriage ceremonies, but such marriages also have to be legally solemnized by the State.
The Bill could be a significant step forward for secularism in Ireland, but it has three important flaws that must be amended if it is to serve its intended purpose.
The definition of ‘secular body’ should be amended to define ‘secular’ objectively, and to include secular bodies that are not humanist;
Secular bodies and religious bodies should be treated equally in terms of restrictions when nominating people to solemnize marriages;
The restriction on secular bodies promoting political causes should be qualified to match the wording in the Charities Act 2009.
Please lobby your TD immediately to let them know about the need for these important changes. It will be debated in the Dail very soon, and it may be inaccurately presented there as providing equality between religious and nonreligious bodies.
1. The definition of ‘secular body’ should be amended
The definition of ‘secular body’ should be amended to define ‘secular’ objectively, and to include secular bodies that are not principally humanist.
45A(1) For the purposes of this Part, a body shall… be a secular body if it is an organized group of people and
(a) has not fewer than 50 members;
(b) its principal objects are secular, ethical and humanist;
(c) members of the body meet in relation to their beliefs and in furtherance of the objects referred to in Section (b);
The difficulty here is Section (b): a body shall only be considered a secular body if “its principal objects are secular, ethical and humanist.” Secularism should never be defined in a way that necessitates allegiance to any particular version of a philosophical non-confessional belief system. This definition prevents secular bodies whose principal objects are not humanist from applying to nominate people to solemnize marriages.
For example, while Atheist Ireland is not seeking to nominate people to solemnize marriages, we could not support a Bill that would prevent us from having that option. Indeed, in principle, this Bill would prevent a purely secular body, whose objects stressed the philosophical neutrality of secularism, from being defined as a secular body.
This in turn subverts the stated purpose of the Bill, which is to extend marriage solemnizing not only to humanist bodies, but to any secular bodies that fulfill the other criteria in the Bill. It also subverts the ideal of political secularism, which is that a secular State is neutral between religious and nonreligious philosophical beliefs.
Proposal for Amendment:
Define a secular body as the European Union does: “A body shall be a secular body if… its principal objects are philosophical and non-confessional.”
2. Secular bodies and religious bodies should be treated equally
Secular bodies and religious bodies should be treated equally in terms of restrictions when nominating people to solemnize marriages.
The principal Act is the Civil Registrations Act 2004. This defines “a religious body” as “an organised group of people, members of which meet regularly for common religious worship.”
To parallel this, the New Bill should describe “a secular body” simply as “an organised group of people, members of which meet regularly to further secular aims.” Instead, the current Bill places a lot more restrictions on secular bodies that are not placed on religious bodies.
Putting aside the flawed definition of secularism, as outlined earlier, this Bill imposes the following restrictions on secular bodies that are not imposed on religious bodies:
(a) Must have not fewer than 50 members
(b) Must have specified principal objects
(f) Must have been in existence for at least five years
(g) Must have had tax exemption for at least five years
These restrictions should be imposed on both religious and secular bodies alike, or else they should not be imposed on either.
The Bill also describes obvious qualifications for secular bodies that the Principal Act does not describe for religious bodies:
(d) Must not have marriage rules that contravene the law
(e) Must have appropriate procedures for training and accrediting
If these obvious qualifications need to be explicitly stated, they should be stated for religious bodies and secular bodies alike.
Proposal for Amendment:
Either remove these discriminatory restrictions from secular bodies, or else have them apply equally to religious bodies and secular bodies alike.
3. The restriction on promoting political causes should be qualified
The restriction on secular bodies promoting political causes should be qualified to match the wording in the Charities Act 2009.
45A(2) None of the following is a secular body for the purposes of this part:
(a) a political party, or a body that promotes a political party or candidate,
(b) a body that promotes a political cause,
(c) an approved body of persons within the meaning of section 235 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997,
(d) a trade union or a representative body of employers,
(e) a chamber of commerce, or
(f) a body that promotes purposes that are—(i) unlawful, (ii) contrary to public morality, (iii) contrary to public policy, (iv) in support of terrorism or terrorist activities, whether in the State or outside the State, or (v) for the benefit of an organisation, membership of which is unlawful;
The difficulty here is Section (b): a body that promotes a political cause is excluded from the definition of a secular body.
The Humanist Association of Ireland, which is the primary body likely to apply in the first instance under the Bill, does promote a political cause. The Humanist Association of Ireland promotes separation of church and state.
Indeed, it would be extraordinary to find a secular body anywhere that does not promote the political cause of separation of church and state.
Furthermore, this exclusion seems to be a deliberate choice.
The entire wording of the Section of exclusions is transcribed, word for word, from the definition of “excluded body” in the Charities Act 2009, with just one difference.
The Charities Act qualifies “(b) a body that promotes a political cause,” by saying “(b) a body that promotes a political cause, unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the charitable purposes of the body,”
There is no reason why this Bill should remove that qualification from the definitions that it has transcribed from the Charities Act.
Proposal for Amendment:
Amend 45A(2) to read: “None of the following is a secular body for the purposes of this part… (b) a body that promotes a political cause, unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the secular purposes of the body,”
Americans elect a lot of public officials – over half a million, from the President down to school district level. If atheists and other nonbelievers were represented fairly, you would expect about 50 in the US Congress and another 50,000 at State and local level.
In 2007, the Secular Coalition for America tried to find them. They found only five. Three were very local officials: a school board president, a school committee member and a town meeting member. And the two most senior were both in their seventies, much closer to the end than the start of their political careers.
The first, Pete Stark, was born in 1931 and served in the Air Force and founded a bank before being elected to Congress in 1973 to represent a liberal district in California. He grew up a Republican, but had switched sides when he opposed the Vietnam War. He is a Unitarian Universalist, a congregation in which members seek their own truth about theological issues. Stark does not believe in a supreme being, saying that he is more interested in people, though he adds that the Stark family does recognize a supreme being – his wife Deborah.
So what horrific future would this openly atheist Congressman inflict on Americans? His shocking priorities are universal health care, ending the war in Iraq and protecting Medicare. He wants higher taxes for the wealthy and on cigarettes. He wants incentives for teachers to work in low-income schools. He wants higher payroll taxes to better fund social security. He wants better job re-training, child care and housing assistance. He supports the UN, the Kyoto protocol, abortion, gay marriage and affirmative action. He opposes the death penalty, and wants to restrict sex and violence on television. May God protect us all from Pete Stark.
Stark is unruffled by religious fanaticism, saying that ‘the leading candidates all agree that they believe in a supreme being, but forget about it as soon as they are elected.’ He believes that religion affects the style, rather than the substance, of the main political debate in America, which he says is between the Democrat view that government makes our lives better and the Republican view that government is dangerous for us. On ‘coming out’, he looked forward to ‘working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social service.’
Ernie Chambers, Nebraska State Senator
Next comes Ernie Chambers, the only openly atheist lawmaker at State level. He was born in 1937 and worked as a barber before he became a local civil rights leader in the 1960s. He was first elected as an independent candidate to the Nebraska Senate in 1971, and is the State’s only black Senator, its longest serving Senator and the only one to wear blue tee-shirts and jeans instead of a suit. His crimes against God include ending corporal punishment in state schools, getting equal state pensions for women, and blocking the legalization of concealed weapons. He strongly opposes the death penalty, and starts every legislative session by proposing its abolition.
Chambers got world attention in 2007 when he took a legal case against God. In a different case, a Nebraska judge had barred a woman from using the words ‘rape’ or ‘victim’ while alleging that she was a rape victim. He insisted that she describe what happened as ‘sex’, which is a bit like calling a mugging a ‘financial transaction’. The woman took a lawsuit against the judge, but her case was dismissed as being frivolous. Chambers took her side, arguing that the Nebraska constitution allows anyone to sue anyone. To make this point in a satirical way, he sued God in the district court of Douglas County, Nebraska.
Chambers wanted an injunction ordering God to cease certain harmful activities including the making of terroristic threats as well as ‘fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornados, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects and the like.’ He argued that the court had jurisdiction because God, being omnipresent, was personally in Douglas County, and that he should not have to serve legal papers because God, being omniscient, already knew about the case.
Three Local Elected Officials
The three local officials who responded to the Secular Coalition were Terry Doran, president of the School Board in Berkeley, California.; Nancy Glista on the School Committee in Franklin, Maine; and Michael Cerone, a Town Meeting Member from Arlington, Massachusetts. And that, in the early twenty-first century, was the extent of openly atheist elected officials in America: Pete Stark married to his supreme being in California, Ernie Chambers suing God in Nebraska, and three local officials scattered across three million square miles of land.
Clearly there are many, many more elected atheists in the American closet. If one in every ten citizens rejects belief in gods, then about fifty members of Congress should do so. The Secular Coalition says there are 21 others who are not yet willing to go public. Even if this is true, it would still be less than half the amount that would be proportional to the overall population. It is time for elected American atheists to stand up for their rational beliefs.
In recent months Ireland’s stringent abortion ban has been cited approvingly by Islamic states as a model for their own societies, and now Irish enacted blasphemy laws have become the envy of nations like Pakistan.
According to the Irish Times, Ireland’s 2010 blasphemy law is being cited by fundamentalist Islamic states ‘as justification’ for persecuting religious dissidents, according to an Indian campaigner who was exiled for his belief in free speech.
Many Islamic countries have enacted biting blasphemy laws. In Afghanistan blasphemy is an offence under Sharia law and may be punished by penalties up to execution by hanging. In Ireland, blasphemy is prohibited by the constitution and carries a maximum fine of $32,500.
Meanwhile Sanal Edamaruku, who is on a five-day visit to Ireland, is reportedly facing charges of blasphemy in India after challenging the claims that water dripping from a statue in Mumbai was a miracle.
Catholic Church members in India complained to the police there last April, seeking his arrest under blasphemy charges that carry a three-year sentence. Because of the threat, Edamaruku was forced to flee to Finland which has granted him a residency permit.
Edamaruku said he was ‘surprised’ by Ireland’s decision two years ago to introduce a law on blasphemy, something that the then Fianna Fail-led government claimed was necessary to comply with the Irish constitution.
Since the law passed in 2010, Irish voters have watched with disbelief as Pakistan and other countries have cited the statute at the United Nations to support their own blasphemy laws.
Meanwhile Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland, which invited Edamaruku to highlight his plight and to host a series of public meetings, criticised the Irish coalition government’s decision to refer the issue to the constitutional convention which meets for the first time on Saturday.
‘Both parties (Fine Gael and Labour) say they are committed to getting rid of the law – so the effect is simply to delay it happening.’
In India, Edamaruku established that a statue of Jesus said to ‘cry’ real tears was not holy water so much as wholly ineffective plumbing.
But the backlash was instant and severe. Edamaruku was accused of blasphemy, charged with offences that carry a three-year prison sentence and eventually, after receiving death threats, forced to seek exile in Finland.
Edamaruku is well known in India for debunking religious myths, and was already unpopular among Indian Catholics for publicly criticising Mother Teresa’s legacy in Kolkata.
Edamaruku reportedly travelled to Mumbai where he found that the dripping water was due to clogged drainage pipes behind the wall where it stood.
‘India cannot criticise Pakistan for arresting young girls for blaspheming against Islam while it arrests and locks up its own citizens for breaking our country’s blasphemy laws,’ Edamaruku said. ‘It is an absurd law but also extremely dangerous because it gives fanatics, whether they are Hindus, Catholics or Muslims, a licence to be offended. It also allows people who are in dispute with you to make up false accusations of blasphemy.’
Last month, a 16-year-old student at Borrisokane Community College in Tipperary made an official complaint to the Irish Human Rights Commission. According to the Sunday Times, atheist Nathan Young alleges that his human rights were breached by compulsory prayer services.
THERE ARE TWO good reasons why State schools should be run on a secular basis. But first, it is important to explain that a secular school is not the same thing as an atheist school.
A religious school teaches that a god exists, an atheist school would teach that no gods exist, and a secular school is neutral on the question of religion: it does not teach that gods either do or do not exist.
Instead, a secular school teaches children in a neutral, objective way about the different beliefs that different people have about gods, and leaves it up to parents and churches to teach specific religious beliefs outside of school hours.
Now here are the two reasons why State schools should be run on a secular basis. Firstly, it is good for society for children to be educated together. Secondly, in practical terms, secular schools are the only way to ensure that everybody has their human rights respected with regard to education.
Unfortunately, in Ireland we have no secular schools, and the Catholic Church runs more than 90 per cent of our primary schools.
In 2008 the United Nations Human Rights Committee raised concern about the human rights of secular parents and their children in the Irish education system. The UN recommended that the State should open up non-denominational schools throughout the country.
This was not the first time that this issue has been raised by international human rights bodies. The UN and Council of Europe have now raised the issue of the rights of minorities in the Irish education system five times with the Irish State.
All schools at second level in Ireland are obliged to provide religious worship and instruction in the school and must employ teachers of religion approved by the relevant religious authority.
Borrisokane Community College is no exception, and it is clear from their school plan that it is Christian religious instruction and worship that takes place in the school. It is a myth that schools under the patronage of the VEC are secular non-denominational schools. There are no secular non-denominational schools at either primary or second level in Ireland.
The terms non-denominational, multi-denominational and interdenominational are not legally defined in Ireland. The result of this is that some schools call themselves multi-denominational even when they operate a specific religious ethos.
Church and State
The Department of Education is the patron of several schools in Ireland. The state has informed the UN that five of these are Catholic schools and four are Protestant schools. This means that in Ireland the State manages religious schools. In Ireland there is no separation of Church and state in the education system.
Borrisokane Community College is a religious school. One religion teacher allegedly said that prayer services can be for “Christians or atheists or agnostics or whatever”. It seems silly to point out that atheists don’t say prayers and consequently have the right to opt out of prayer services but it obviously it needs to be said.
To put this into context, the State funds religious instruction and prayers services in schools. It funds the training of religious instruction teachers and pays their salaries. It does not provide any alternative classes for minorities who have a right to opt out of religion. Nor does it provide supervision for minorities who opt out of prayer services.
This is religious discrimination and it clearly breaches the human rights of minorities. In addition to this it permits religion to be integrated into all subjects. It is impossible for minorities to opt out of a religious ethos.
The Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn claimed recently that VEC schools “whether designated to one religion or not, have long been recognised as some of the most inclusive schools in the state.”
Borrisokane Community College is what is referred to as an inclusive school in Ireland. These schools are held up as an example of how pluralist our education is. This is the choice for non-religious parents in Ireland. We can send our children to a religious school under Church patronage or we can send our children to a religious school under the patronage of the VEC.
Minister Quinn recently said that he did not want a secular education system but a pluralist system that provides parents with choice in relation to the education of their children. It is clear that he means choice between one private religious school or another private religious school, or if you are lucky a private multi-denominational school like Educate Together, and that there will be no choice for parents who seek a secular non-religious human rights based education for their children.
The Irish Constitution obliges the state to ensure that all children receive a basic moral education but the state only funds moral education based on religious values. It is a religious moral education or no moral education at all. Schools in Ireland can give preference to co-religionists in order to uphold a religious ethos.
The Equal Status Act provides exemptions for schools that operate a religious ethos. The European Convention on Human Rights Act only applies to ‘organs of the state’ and schools in Ireland are not considered ‘organs of the state’. It is no wonder that the United Nations and Council of Europe are concerned about the human rights of minorities in the Irish education system.
Jane Donnelly is the Education Policy Officer for Atheist Ireland. You can find out more at their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter. Atheist Ireland also runs the Teach Don’t Preach campaign for secular education – find it on Facebook here.