U.S. State Department Religious Freedom Report 2009: Ireland
The U.S. Department of State released its annual Report on International Religious Freedom on Monday. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, introducing the Report, touched again on the theme of defamation of religion, noting that:
But an individual’s ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others’ freedom of speech. The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions. These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse.
Now, the section of the report which deals with Ireland probably won’t attract the attention of the international press but it certainly makes for hair-raising reading. Perhaps the report is deliberately light on detail. Perhaps it deliberately selects a narrow conception of religious freedom. Whatever its design, the Report gives a very misleading picture of the state of religious freedom in Ireland.
The report says that:
- ‘The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The law at all levels protects this right in full against abuse, either by governmental or private actors.’
- It is beyond my powers at the moment to provide a full critique of this assertion. To pluck just one point out of the air, we can be concerned with the interpretation of Article 44.2.5 of the Constitution, which since McGrath and O Ruairc v Trustees of Maynooth College  ILRM 166 and In re Article 26 and the Employment Equality Bill 1996  2 IR 321 has been interpreted to give religious bodies broad powers to manage their own affairs (see Prof. James Casey on this body of law here). State deference to religious bodies can work to the detriment of dissenters. Insofar as this conception of the autonomy of religious bodies is reflected in employment legislation, it permits religious bodies to discriminate against employees with a view to protecting the body’s ethos (See Mark Coen’s article here). Homosexual teachers are made especially vulnerable by this arrangement between church and state. As my colleague on the PhD programme at UCC, Eoin Daly would say, the Irish constitutional vision of religious freedom unacceptably privileges the autonomy of the group over the rights of the individual. As variety in religious practice among Irish citizens and residents grows, and Catholic traditionalists retain control of essential institutions, the tensions central to this conception of religious freedom will become more obvious. The Report notes that ‘[b]y law a religious school may select its staff based on their religious beliefs’ but provides no analysis of what that means.
But never mind. That’s a matter of interpretation. What about omissions of fact?
- ‘The Constitution provides that “publication or utterance” of “blasphemous matter” is an offense punishable in accordance with law, but it does not define blasphemy. In the absence of legislation and in the uncertain state of the law, the courts have not prosecuted anyone for blasphemy in several years.’
- ‘Under the terms of the Constitution, the Department of Education must and does provide equal funding to schools of different religious denominations, including Islamic and Jewish schools.’
- As I have noted on this blog already, that arrangement isn’t working out so well.
- ‘In 2003 the Equality Authority declared that church-linked schools are permitted legally to refuse to admit a student who is not of that religious group if the school can prove that the refusal is essential to the maintenance of the “ethos” of the school … However, there were no reports of any children being refused admission to any school for this reason.’
- Except for these children.
- ‘The Government permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. Most primary and secondary schools are denominational, and their boards of management are governed partially by trustees who are members of the Catholic Church or, in fewer cases, the Church of Ireland or other religious denominations.’
- Alison Mawhinney writes about the compatibility of this arrangement with freedom of religion here.