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Opinion: Discrimination against the non-religious is being allowed to continue

An amendment to the Employment Equality Act will prevent religious-run hospitals and schools from dismissing employees for being a lone parent, a divorcee, or LGBT – but not for being an atheist.

Image: PlusONE via Shutterstock

A BILL TABLED by Labour Senator Ivana Bacik aims to end some of the discrimination permitted in section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998.

As it currently stands, religiously-controlled institutions are allowed to discriminate based on sexual orientation, family status, and religion. When I say the Bill aims to end some discrimination it because the amendment will continue to permit religiously-run institutions to discriminate against atheists.

Bacik stated that there had been delays as they awaited a report by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in order to ensure the legislation was “robust enough”. However, in the Recommendation Paper, the Commission has said the Bill was undesirable and may leave the State exposed to a breach of its obligations under the European Employment Equality Directive 2000/78. The Paper suggests numerous alterations to the Bill, one of which was to accord atheists the same protections against discrimination as the Bill aims to give LGBT people. This recommendation, however, has been seemingly ignored and the Bill shall continue containing legalised discrimination against atheists.

Is the Government serious about tackling discrimination?

It is interesting to see the Government trumpet a Bill which ends one form of discrimination while openly permitting another form. This inconsistency is rather puzzling. If the Government was serious about tackling all forms of discrimination then it would endeavour to grant atheists the same legal protections as LGBT people. It would be a simple matter, after all, as they are already amending the legislation; they would just have to accept the recommendations proffered by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

But the Government’s refusal to do so suggests one of two scenarios: either the it isn’t serious about tackling discrimination in Ireland and has simply offered this amendment due to political pressure, or the Government deems discrimination against the non-religious to be acceptable. Neither looks favourably upon the Government. Personally, I view the second scenario as the more likely one as the Government has a history of tolerating continued legislative discrimination against atheists.

Religious oaths

Under the Irish Constitution members of the Council of State, the President and judges are all required to swear a religious oath. This effectively bars atheists from occupying any of those offices, unless, of course, the person goes against their conscience and swears an oath contrary to their beliefs. This is what former Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, who is on record as not believing in a god, was forced to in order to take his place on the Council of State. There would be uproar, and rightly so, if, in order to occupy a public office, a religious person was forced to swear that there was no god or to swear to a god of a different faith.

Such a situation would not persist for very long and steps would be immediately taken to prevent religious individuals from having to swear oaths which contravene their religious beliefs. However, since it’s the rights of atheists that are in dispute the Government does not seem motivated to act.

Solemnising marriages

Even when attempting to end some of the discrimination encountered by the non-religious, the Government faltered and simply introduced more discriminatory measures of a different kind. The Civil Registration Amendment Act 2012 was designed to allow secular bodies to solemnise marriages. The Amendment, in an effort to remedy the anomaly that only religious bodies could solemnise marriages, directly discriminates against atheists by imposing several restrictions which are not applied to religious bodies.

Two of the most discriminatory restrictions required of secular groups in order to solemnise marriages are that they must be ethical and they must not promote a political clause. The Government either just accepts that religious bodies are ethical whereas secular groups must prove it, or religious bodies can behave unethically while still maintaining the ability to solemnise marriages, an ability secular bodies would lose immediately if they were to behave unethically.

Religious bodies can also continue to promote political causes unimpeded, whereas secular groups, if they wish to solemnise marriages, must cease all political activity. Both of these restrictions amount to direct discrimination against atheists.

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Is discrimination against atheists tolerable?

Our Government is finally getting around to the idea that discrimination against LGBT people is wrong and are taking steps to resolve the issue. But just as discrimination against LGBT people was once seen as acceptable, it seems the Government views discrimination against atheists as tolerable. It would be nice if they reached the conclusion that all forms of discrimination are wrong, but atheists, it seems, will have to wait.

With the UN, the EU, and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission all telling the Government that they are actively discriminating against their non-religious citizens there really is no excuse why this situation should persist. The Government can start by altering the amendment to section 37 to accord atheists the same protection against discrimination as it does other citizens.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at Twitter @humanisticus

Read: Column: Religion should be taken out of schools. Leave it at home.

Read: Number of Catholics at record high, despite lowest percentage ever – CSO


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