We have a long way to go before there's a real separation of church and state

After several recent controversies, there has been fresh debate over the role of religion in Ireland...

We have a long way to go before there's a real separation of church and state

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In an Ireland that has been noted as growing ever more socially progressive and secular, the issue of church-state relations remains a contentious ones.

Religion has historically played a major role in independent Ireland. Monsignor - later Archbishop - John Charles McQuaid was one of the key figures involved in drafting the Constitution of Ireland, and Vatican officials were consulted about the document (the Pope, however, did not endorse it).

80 years later, Ireland is still a predominantly Catholic country - despite a 'sharp' drop in the figure compared to 2011, the 2016 Census showed that more than 78% of the population still identify as Catholic. Even allowing for non-practicing Catholics and the significant 73.6% increase in the number of people identifying as non-religious, the prevalence of Catholicism is undeniable.

And yet, Irish people have over the last few decades visibly moved away from church teachings. Abuse scandals have created widespread distrust of Catholic institutions.

Mass attendance is declining - a trend which is expected to continue in the coming decade and beyond. The same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 perhaps marked the most symbolic and resounding rejection of traditional Catholic values and beliefs in recent years.

The last few weeks have reignited the heated debate over church and state as a result of several controversies.

There was public outcry after the revelation that the new National Maternity Hospital would be owned by the Sisters of Charity; new rules regarding the Dáil prayer provoked political opposition; and Ireland made international headlines with the revelation that Gardaí were investigating comments by Stephen Fry after a blasphemy complaint (the investigation has since been dropped).

These unique controversies exist alongside more ubiquitous ones - the long-running debate over school patronage, for example, or the unavoidable religious undercurrents in the debate over the country's abortion laws.

More than four decades ago, a constitutional provision on the 'special position' of the Catholic Church was removed from the Constitution. But how can we further formalise the division between religion and the state?

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"Christians can be a judge - I can’t"

Speaking to Newstalk.com, John Hamill of Atheist Ireland explained that his organisation does not believe the state needs to know "what any citizen believes in terms of who created the universe" in order to carry out its basic societal tasks.

He observed: "If you suggested the state should have different services for Liverpool fans, or Manchester United fans... it’s exactly that ridiculous. But because we have this religiosity infusing the functions of the state, then we have the ridiculous situation where we have different laws for different people depending on who they believe created the universe."

He highlighted the religious oaths many holders of high office have to take.

"Christians can be a judge - I can’t. Christians can be President - I can’t [...] We have this civil registration service in Ireland that describes different rules for different citizens, depending on whether they want a religious or a secular wedding."

So where does John think we should start in more explicitly separating religious influence from civic services? 

“I think the priorities should be schools and hospitals - the education service and the health service," he argued. "There’s no doubt that the 8th Amendment is religiously inspired, even though it doesn’t mention God specifically, so that would be a priority I think.

"What I would suggest is that we require all patrons of schools and hospitals to respect the human rights of all citizens that they provide publicly-funded services to. I don’t think that’s at all outrageous or extortionate."

It has often been claimed that removing schools in particular from religious patronage will be a lengthy and difficult process. After all, 96% of schools in the country are under religious patronage.

John, however, doesn't believe it will be as challenging as some have suggested. "To me that just sounds like politicians describing why their job is difficult," he argued.

Blasphemy and the Constitution

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The Stephen Fry story has very much reignited the public discussion about blasphemy - but this is one area where a constitutional restriction still exists.

Article 40 states: "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law."

This specific constitutional clause led to the introduction of new blasphemy laws the 2009 Defamation Act - and anyone convicted can face a fine of up to €25,000.

Explaining the rationale behind the law, former justice minister Dermot Ahern told Pat Kenny that an expensive referendum to remove the reference to a blasphemy offence would have been inappropriate in the midst of a financial crisis - and so a law that was 'virtually impossible' to prosecute for was introduced instead.

The Department of Justice has indicated that work is now underway to hold a referendum on changing the blasphemy clause - but what form would a replacement or deletion take?

John Hamill said: "We would favour either just deleting the word blasphemy, or else just adding a positive clause - a requirement that the Oireachtas should defend the right to free expression.

"If you look at the human rights law in relation to blasphemy provisions, blasphemy itself is actually an infringement of the freedom of religion [...] It’s difficult for Churches to talk to each other about what they disagree with with each other about, if they can’t criticise each other’s beliefs."

He added: "Blasphemy laws to my mind don’t defend the freedom of religion - they infringe on the freedom of religion".

Where are we at?

Alongside the various controversies to have dominated headlines in recent months, there is also definite progress being made in further separating church and state - even if the pace may not be as fast as some would like.

Earlier this year, the Education Minister announced plans to provide more multi-denominational and non-denominational schools. He claimed 400 such schools will exist by 2030 - although that would still be only a small percentage of the 4,000 or so state-funded schools around the country.

In terms of hospitals, there has been less momentum. Many of the country's busiest hospitals are owned by religious orders such as the Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Charity. However, the debate over the National Maternity Hospital has refocused public and indeed political attention on the issue of religious ownership - only time will tell whether that will be reflected in any later arrangements over new public facilities.

Many individuals are now able, however,  to experience the increased distance between religion and state firsthand: that a gay couple is now able to officially get married is something that would have been unthinkable even a generation ago.

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For almost four decades, the Irish Constitution stated: "The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens."

Today, we've moved on, but the Catholic Church still retains a unique prominence in Irish society. The changes have been obvious to behold, but there is some way to go before Ireland can really be considered a secular society.

As John Hamill argued: "The function of the state should be to provide public services for people - schools, hospitals, Garda services and the other functions of civic society. In doing that, we believe the state doesn’t really need to know what any citizen believes in terms of who created the universe."