Home > Constitution of Ireland, Law, Culture and Religion > U.S. State Department Religious Freedom Report 2009: Ireland

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 [1979] ILRM 166 and In re Article 26 and the Employment Equality Bill 1996 [1997] 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.’
    • The Report omits to mention this, which was kind of a big deal on this side of the water. Colin posted on it earlier in the year. This oversight is strange, given that the Defamation Bill 2006 was mentioned in the 2008 report.
  • ‘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.’
  • ‘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.’
  • ‘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.


  1. pmcauliffe
    October 28, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I think the concerns of the report and the above post are different. The State Depatment report is primarily concerned with right to profess, practice, and promote one’s religious beliefs. It is a very limited remit, and a matter conceptually different (though to a degree inter-related) to difficulties in policing the church/state divide, which Máiread’s post deals with. I accept fully that State deference to religious bodies can work to the detriment of dissenters, but where does it is an issue of equality or discrimination, which are distinctly different from actual freedom to practice religion, as I try to show below. As such, it is not a very strong ground from which to fight the serious problems raised in the post.

    For example, the vulnerability of homosexual teachers to the church-state relationship is not an issue of freedom of religon (it would apply equally to protestant, Catholic, dissenter and atheist teachers) but rather one of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

    Similarly, the apparent failure of the Department of Education to fully provide equal funding to schools of different religious denominations, including Islamic and Jewish schools is a question of religious equality, and not one of freedom to practice one’s own religion. Indeed, if the state legislatively omitted to fund these schools, it could not be said to be an interference with one’s right to practice (though it be discrimination on the basis of religion if Catholic schools continued to be funded).

    The instance where students were refused admission to a school in the interests of the maintenance of the “ethos” of the school may be considered an interference with the religious freedom of the students in question, but that position must be taken to its logical conclusion that religious-based schools interfere with religious freedom every time they turn someone of a different sect down. I don’t agree with religion-based schools but personally wouldn’t find the refusal to let me enter a protestant or Muslim school an actual interference with my religious freedom. There is a contradiction between the second and third bullet-points – one can’t criticise the state for failing to properly fund religion-based schools on the one hand and criticise the very action which maintains their integrity as religion-based schools on the other.

    I cannot access Alison Mawhinney’s post, but I agree that the permission of religious instruction in schools can be an interference with religious freedom. In a state where classrooms are increasingly mixed, the possibility of religious propaganda masquerading as instruction as an impressionable age and the inconvenience division of classrooms they might necessitate are an interference with the religion of those groups who find themselves in a minority. Religious instruction in schools has no place in a pluralist society.

    In short, the Mawhinney example aside, the problems averred to above are not interferences with the practice of religon and inasmuch as they amount to religious intolerance (I’m not convinced they do), they are issues of equality and discrimination that flow from the free practice of religon which we are lucky enough to have in Ireland.

  2. pmcauliffe
    October 28, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    PS: As for defamation of religon, it is a senseless infringement of freedom of speech but can hardly be said to interfere with freedom of religon or, it may be said, freedom to not have religon. It is difficult (though not impossible)to conceive of an ordinary or even extreme affirmation of religious belief that meets the threshold of blasphemy, a law which of course applies to the blaspheming of God, God-lke beings or God-based accesories. Aside from freedom of speech, the problem with defmation of religon (in Ireland) lies with the church/state boundary and not with freedom of religon as human rights instruments or the US State Department onceive of it

  3. Mairead Enright
    October 29, 2009 at 12:11 am

    I had a comment all typed out and it died!

    My main point was that I would prefer a concept of freedom of religion which (a) takes account of the religious freedom of dissenters – covering the defamation of religion point and (b) takes account of the intersections of religious freedom with other rights bundles – covering the gay teachers point.

    As for schools – there is no contradiction in my position. The state ought fund schools which promote a religious ethos while simultaneously requiring them, in the interests of the common good and as a condition of receipt of that funding, to admit children not of that faith. That position seems to be to be the only fair one under the current Irish system, which does not provide any state secular alternative. Of course, I would prefer if there were a state secular alternative, in which case I would still fund religious schools, but allow them greater latitude in admissions. I think.

  4. pmcauliffe
    October 29, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I hate it when a comment gets typed out and dies. It happened to me above with my comment. I accept the point on your lack of contradiction. On defamation of religons, I would argue that one can easily and forcefully dissent without straying into blasphemous teritory and that it remains more a freedom of speech issue than freedom of religon. As for Ireland’s unhappy intersections of religious freedom with other rights bundles, they seem to me at least to be a slight remove from the more limited issue of freedom of religons simpliciter

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