How secular is the Programme for Government?

This is Atheist Ireland’s initial response to the proposed Programme for Government agreed jointly by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party. While it is weak on explicit secular policies, some of its commitments would lead to secular specifics if they are implemented while respecting freedom of religion and belief.

We will be contacting the three parties and the incoming Ministers to discuss how this should be done in accordance with the human rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief; equality before the law; freedom from discrimination; and the right to an effective remedy.


1. Religious Oaths for Public Office — Not addressed
2. Religious and Nonreligious Equality — Not explicitly addressed
3. Religious Control of Education — Failed policy continues
4. Equal Access to Schools — Partly addressed
5. Curriculum-related Issues — Partly addressed
6. Discrimination against Teachers — Partly addressed
7. Secular Healthcare — Partly addressed
8. Solemnising of Marriages — Not addressed
9. Assisted Dying — Not addressed
10. Prejudice-Motivated Crimes — Partly addressed
11. Political Donations and Spending — Partly addressed

1. Religious Oaths for Public Office — Not addressed

The section on Constitutional Reform makes no reference to removing the mandatory religious oaths for President, Judges, and members of the Council of State which includes Taoiseach and Tanaiste. This means that conscientious atheists and some minority faith members will remain unable to hold these positions.

This is despite the United Nations Human Rights Committee telling Ireland to take concrete steps to amend these oaths, taking into account the Committee’s general comment no. 22 (1993) on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, concerning the right not to be compelled to reveal one’s thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief in public.

However, the Section on Courts Reform commits to modernising the law on the administration of oaths in judicial and other proceedings. This should be done by introducing a single secular affirmation, in accordance with the requirements of the UN Human Rights Committee, and not by complicating the process further with multiple religious oaths that breach human rights.

The Programme does commit to a referendum to allow Irish citizens living abroad to vote in Presidential elections. We will lobby to have the religious oaths referendum run alongside that. It would be undemocratic to extend the electorate for President before ensuring that all otherwise eligible citizens are able to run for the position regardless of their religion or belief.

2. Religious and Nonreligious Equality — Not explicitly addressed

The section on Equality makes no reference to equality on the grounds of religion or belief. It is an otherwise comprehensive section that covers immigration and integration, direct provision, LGBTI+, Travellers and Roma, gender equality, gender recognition, and socio-economic inequality. But it simply ignores this central area of inequality that is enshrined in our laws.

Article 44 of the Constitution requires the State to respect and honour religion. In the Charities Act there is a category defined as the religious category which does not explicitly include nonreligious beliefs or philosophical convictions. In the Equal Status Act discrimination on the religious ground is defined as having a religious belief or not having a religious belief. The Equal Status Act does not explicitly include nonreligious beliefs or philosophical convictions.

However, the EU, the European Court and the United Nations are quite clear on this issue. Article 9 of the European Convention protects both religions and beliefs. The UN has said that Article 18 of the ICCPR protects both. Section 11 and 12 of EU Council Directive 2000/78/EC of November 2000 also refers to religions and beliefs. The European Court regards secularism as a belief or philosophical conviction protected by Article 9 of the Convention, but our equality laws do not explicitly recognise the beliefs part of religion and beliefs.

The Programme for Government refers to those of us with beliefs or philosophical convictions other than religious beliefs with the negative description of ‘none’. This demonstrates a lack of parity of esteem between religions and beliefs. This is not pluralism. When interpreting the Programme, the three parties should include equality between religious and nonreligious citizens along with the other types of equality that the Programme explicitly mentions.

3. Religious Control of Education — Failed policy continues

The Programme simply fails to address the underlying problem of religious control of our State-funded schools, despite numerous United Nations and Council of Europe bodies telling the State that the current system breaches the human rights of pupils, parents, and teachers.

Elsewhere the Programme commits to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on the Future of Education at primary and second level. This forum should address the fundamental issues of religious control of education that were not addressed in this Programme.

The Programme has a Section titled An Inclusive Vision for Education. This states that in welcoming everyone to participate in education, they deserve to be treated fairly. This section uses an inclusive ethos to treat students in the same way regardless of which school they are attending. In the O’Keeffe case at the European Court, the court said that the State could not absolve itself of its responsibility to guarantee Convention rights by delegating that to private bodies.

However, the Programme then has another Section titled Ensuring Plurality and Choice in Education. This Section simply abandons the inclusive ethos that is used to address the other aspects of education. Instead it continues to allow each of our State-funded schools to treat pupils, parents, and teachers differently based on the religious beliefs or otherwise of their Patrons. This is not inclusiveness, as is reflected by the fact that it is not in the Section titled An Inclusive Vision for Education.

The Programme commits to expanding the plurality of our schools to reflect the full breadth of society. It aims to achieve the target of at least 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030 to improve parental choice. But neither this aim or this target can produce pluralism in education. The Forum on Patronage report explained why in its Section on Standalone Schools. Atheist Ireland has published several analyses of this problem.

The Programme aims to expand and prioritise the transfer of viable schools to ETB-run Community National Schools. But it does not commit to opening up non-denominational schools as called for by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2016 under the ICCPR. The UN Human Rights Committee has also recommended students have access to secular education and the phasing out of the religious integrated curriculum in the majority of schools.

Another problem is that different people within the education system define important phrases in different ways. This includes the legal obligation to respect the beliefs of all parents, and terms like denominational, multi-denominational, inter-denominational, and non-denominational. For example, ETB-run multi-denominational schools can operate in practice as Catholic schools. The government should commit to legally defining these terms in order to make its policies in the Programme implementable.

Why give preference to ETB-run Community National Schools over Educate Together schools? There is a good argument in principle why publicly accountable schools are more appropriate than schools run by private Patrons, but the CNS Patrons course Goodness Me Goodness You does not meet human rights standards and it disrespects secular convictions. Also, the Programme does not explain how this preference for Community National Schools fits in with its unworkable overall policy of providing parental choice.

Finally in this Section, the Programme aims to provide clear, non-partisan information to communities on the preparation for, and the consequences of, the divestment process. But the divestment programme will not work and could not resolve the problems even if it could work. There is no point in informing communities about the details of a failed policy.

4. Equal Access to Schools — Partly addressed

The Section on Ensuring Plurality and Choice states that students of all religions and none should have access to education, regardless of their belief system. But it does not elaborate on how this can happen in practice without discrimination under the existing Patronage system.

At a minimum, it would require amending the Equal Status Act to eliminate religious discrimination in access to second-level schools, and removing the right of all denominational schools at primary or second level to refuse access to a student if it is proved that the individual student is hostile to the ethos of the school. Currently, minority religious schools can continue to discriminate against other minorities in access and also between religious and non-religious philosophical convictions.

But more importantly, the right of access to education means more than simply being legally allowed to attend the school. It extends to meaningful access without discrimination to any benefit provided by the school and any other term or condition of participation in the school by a student.

The Constitution obliges the State to respect the inalienable right of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions. The Constitution also guarantees that all citizens are equal before the law. Even the courts have said that the Constitutional rights of parents in our education system go beyond those guaranteed under human rights law. State funding for schools is conditional on these rights.

Also, in order to implement this commitment, there must be an effective complaints mechanism for parents and children in schools particularly regarding various aspects of how the school is run. For example, parents who object about how race or religion is covered under the curriculum have no place to bring a complaint as the Ombudsman for Children does not accept these types of complaints.

5. Curriculum-related Issues — Partly addressed

The Programme commits to ensuring that a curriculum of multiple religious beliefs and ethics is taught as a national curriculum of tolerance and values in all primary schools. This overtly discriminatory description of the course focuses only on religious beliefs and ignores nonreligious beliefs.

Even implementing this limited and still-discriminatory policy would involve facing down the Catholic bishops, who blocked the last attempt to introduce such a course because it is contrary to the ethos of the Catholic Church. It could even make things worse for minorities on the ground as these types of courses can be delivered according to the ethos of the Patron and schools and teachers coerce students to take these types of courses.

This Section does not explicitly refer to some issues which we must assume are implicitly included in implementing this policy.

One example is that the State is obliged to vindicate the Constitutional and human right to opt out without prejudice from religious teaching classes, whatever they may be called and however they may be structured. This obligation should extend to providing such students with an alternative timetabled subject in order that their Constitutional rights be vindicated without prejudice.

Another example is the right of parents and students, under data protection law, to not have to reveal their religious or philosophical convictions, directly or indirectly, when exercising their right to not attend religious teaching or worship in publicly-funded schools.

Another example is the recent WRC case in relation to giving homework passes to children who attended religious ceremonies. The ruling stated that schools must not discriminate in access to any benefits provided by the establishment or any other term or condition of participation in the establishment by a student.

These issues are central to the Constitutional right to attend state-funded schools without religious discrimination. We must assume that vindicating Constitutional rights are implicit in how this curriculum policy will be delivered. This will require guidelines on the opt-out and on how far schools can influence children from minorities with their religious ethos.

In the Section titled Striving for Excellence in Education, there is a commitment to developing inclusive and age-appropriate RSE and SPHE curricula across primary and post-primary levels, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships and making appropriate legislative changes if necessary. This is a positive proposal, which Atheist Ireland raised with the United Nations and got a recommendation that the State should do this.

However, the Programme coyly fails to mention why legislative changes would be needed: Section 15 of the Education Act has to be amended to ensure that schools deliver the curriculum in an objective manner and not through the religious ethos of their Patrons. Also, implementing this policy would require preventing religious charities such as Accord from delivering sex education in schools. If Section 15 of the Education Act is not amended it will mean that parents have no legal grounds for complaining that their children cannot access objective RSE and SPHE because of the religious ethos of the school. There will be no effective remedy for parents to vindicate the right of their children to objective sex education.

6. Discrimination against Teachers — Partly addressed

There is no explicit commitment to amend our employment laws (Section 37 Employment Equality Act) to protect people of minority beliefs who want to access the teaching profession without religious discrimination as recommended by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2016. However there are two commitments that could be used to bring about this outcome. It is simply not a proportional balancing of rights to exclude minorities from the teaching profession because they cannot teach catholicism or uphold the religious ethos of the Patron body on the grounds of conscience.

Under the Section Striving for Excellence in Education, there is a commitment to review the provision, content and delivery of teacher education and professional development. And under the Section An Inclusive Vision for Education, there is a commitment to introduce a positive action programme to overcome barriers and increase the number of teachers from our migrant communities.

Implementing these two commitments should involve removing the religious privilege from teacher training colleges and the religious discrimination in Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act. It should also involve a review of how teachers are trained to uphold human rights and in particular the right to freedom of religion and belief.

7. Secular Healthcare — Partly addressed

The Programme commits to concluding the governance arrangements and commence the building of the new maternity Hospital at St Vincent’s Hospital. However, it does not elaborate on the need for the governance arrangements to be based on secular law and not a religious ethos, particularly with regard to issues such as abortion.

8. Solemnising of Marriages — Not addressed

The Programme does not refer to amending the Civil Registration Amendment Act, so that the religious discrimination in the Act is removed. Bodies that can nominate solemnisers for marriages should be treated equally under the law, instead of having different legal conditions for religious and secular bodies, and for different secular bodies.

9. Assisted Dying — Not addressed

An otherwise comprehensive Section on End-of-Life care simply ignores the question of assisted dying for rational people who are seriously or terminally ill. This is despite the fact that Section begins by saying that dignity of a dying person and their family must be the State’s focus. It is despite the fact that the Supreme Court stated in the Marie Fleming case that the Oireachtas could legislate to allow assisted dying, if it included safeguards to ensure that the law was not abused.

10. Prejudice-Motivated Crimes — Partly addressed

The Programme commits to introduce Hate Crime legislation within twelve months of the formation of the Government, and to revise and update Incitement to Hatred Act 1989, taking account of the public consultation conducted in 2019. But it does not commit to doing this in a way that protects freedom of speech about ideas as opposed to attacks on persons. It is important that new laws on hate speech do not end up being a new blasphemy law by another name and undermining our human rights commitments.

11. Political Donations and Spending – Partly addressed

The Programme commits to review our electoral laws so that donations and resources from non-citizens outside of the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political process. It makes no reference to the need to also strengthen restrictions on domestic funding of political causes in between elections. This area needs stronger regulation to stop wealthy bodies such as the Catholic Church from influencing political decisions on education and other issues.


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