Last Updated 17 September 2020

Ireland is a Republic of about 4.9 million people. It covers about five-sixths of the geographical island of Ireland. In 1922 it achieved de facto independence from the UK, and became the mostly-Catholic Irish Free State. The rest of the island remained within the UK, and became the mostly-Protestant Northern Ireland. In 1937 the Irish Free State adopted a new constitution which named the state Ireland. In 1949 Ireland declared itself a fully sovereign Republic. In 1972 Ireland joined what is now the European Union. In 1999 the Belfast Agreement created new shared institutions between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and between Ireland and the UK. As of September 2020 it is unclear how Brexit (the planned divorce of the UK from the European Union) will influence these relationships.

Systemic Discrimination
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Constitution and government

The Constitution1 and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association. However, there is some state sponsorship of religion, particularly in the education system.

The Constitution includes the ostensibly secular statement that “no law may be made either directly or indirectly to endow any religion”. However, the state argues that it is constitutionally obliged to buttress the rights of religious bodies to act in accordance with their own religious ethos, even while those religious bodies are delivering state-funded essential public services such as schools and hospitals.

In 2019 Atheist Ireland called for an ethical secular State at meeting with the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and Government, held as part of a dialogue process under Article 17 of the Lisbon

Explicit appeals to the Christian god

The constitution includes explicit appeals to the Christian god, including:

The preamble: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ…”

Article 44: “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.”

Every day, the Dail and Seanad (the houses of parliament) begin their work with a public prayer to the Christian God. The chairperson must read this prayer aloud, which imposes a religious test on an elected public office-holder. In 2017, the Dail added a moment of silent reflection for non-Christians, but also voted that parliamentarians must now stand during the Christian

Religious oaths for public office holders

Articles 12, 31 and 34 of the constitution include obligatory religious oaths for the President, judges, and members of the Council of State which includes the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Chief Justice, President of the High Court, chairs of the Dail and Seanad, and Attorney General. This is the Presidential oath:

“In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will maintain the Constitution of Ireland and uphold its laws, that I will fulfil my duties faithfully and conscientiously in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and that I will dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland. May God direct and sustain me.”

These oaths effectively preclude conscientious atheists and agnostics from holding these important positions.

In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee told Ireland:

Ireland should amend articles 12, 31 and 34 of the Constitution that require religious oaths to take up senior public office positions, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 22 (1993) concerning the right not to be compelled to reveal one’s thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief in

Other constitutional and legal issues

The Constitution is heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic ethos of 1937. However, two recent referendums have removed the bans in Article 40.3.3 against abortion and in Article 40.6.1 against blasphemy. Other issues remain to be tackled. Article 40.1, on equality before the law, does not include the principle of non-discrimination. Article 41.2 refers to the duties of women in the home. Article 42, on education, and Article 44, on religion, do not protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion for atheists, agnostics and humanists, particularly within the educationÉireann_October_2015_Edition.pdf

In 2020, Atheist Ireland obtained a legal opinion that the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction in schools extends to the right to be supervised or given a different subject. This right is not vindicated in Irish schools.6

Many laws discriminate against atheists, humanists and minority faith members. These include the Education Act, which gives preference to religious families over nonreligious families the Equal Status Act and Employment Equality Act, which allow state-funded schools and hospitals to discriminate on the ground of religion; the Charities Act and tax laws, which favour religious motivations over secular ones; and the Civil Registration Act, which discriminates against and among secular marriage solemnisers.

In 2020, the Irish Government decided to remove the requirement to swear a religious oath or ask to make a secular affirmation when making affidavits for court cases. This requirement remains for witnesses and jurors who are present at court cases, thus both breaching their human right to freedom of conscience and potentially biasing jurors for or against them.7

In 2020 Atheist Ireland elaborated on these issues in its report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.8

Historical religious influence

The dominant religion has traditionally been Roman Catholicism, and the Catholic Church has influenced the island since the fourth century. Most Irish people remained Catholic despite the reformation in England, and Irish history has been dominated by ethno-religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Resistance to British rule largely came from Catholics (with some notable exceptions). Under British administration, the Catholic majority experienced high levels of discrimination, including restrictions on land ownership, limitations on religious practice, and being barred from political positions. Despite reforms, by the early 20th-century, discrimination was still widespread and was one of the factors fuelling an independence movement dominated by Catholics.

From the first decades of independence, the Catholic Church came to be dominant in both the political system and civil society. Over 92% of people were recognised as Catholic, and this grew as many Protestants left the Free State. The Catholic Church also wielded significant political influence. Pressure from the Church resulted in bans on contraception (partially legalised in 1978), homosexual acts (reluctantly legalised in 1993 after the David Norris case at the European Court of Human Rights), and divorce (legalised by referendum in 1997). Censorship of books, plays, television and films was also widespread, especially those not congruent with Catholic dogma. In 1982 a Catholic-backed referendum made abortion unconstitutional in all but very restrictive cases.

Religious influence today

In recent decades the Catholic Church’s influence on Irish civil society has waned. This is in part due to changes in demographics, urbanisation, and the country’s emergence into the global economy. A series of Church scandals going back to the late 1990s, especially the Catholic Church Child Sex abuse appear to have contributed to plummeting church attendance. Whereas, back in the 1970s attendance had been recorded at 90%, recent surveys have recorded national weekly attendance at 30% with some parts of Dublin reporting attendance at less than 15%.

However, while the Catholic Church has lost the control that it used to have over the population, it still retains considerable political influence. This is because many of the laws that were passed while the Church was stronger are still in place. Some of these laws are underpinned by the 1937 constitution, and they would require referendums to amend them. Until recently, successive governments have been unwilling to fundamentally address this issue. Since 2015, three referendums have legalised same-sex marriage, abortion, and blasphemy (see below).

In the 2016 census, 78.3% said they were Roman Catholic; 10.12% said they had no religion or were atheist or agnostic; 6.84% said they were of another Christian denomination; 2.54% did not answer the question; and 2.2% said they were of a non-Christian religion. In 2017 Atheist Ireland argued that these figures overestimate the strength of religion, because of bias in the census

Education and children’s rights

The Catholic Church has dominated education in Ireland since British reforms in the 1830s. This dominance was expanded after independence. Currently, despite the church’s decline in influence within the country as a whole, it still controls most state-funded public schools. This results in infringements of the human rights of atheists, humanists, and members of minority faiths.

Multi-belief alliance for secular schools

In 2016 a multi-belief alliance was formed to campaign for secular schools, involving Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland. This alliance has met with the Oireachtas (Parliament) Education Committee and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human;

There are four related areas in which Irish schools infringe on the human rights of atheists, humanists, and minority faith members. They are outlined in the Schools Equality PACT, an acronym for Patronage, Access, Curriculum, and


The Irish education system cedes control of most publicly-funded schools to patron bodies, almost all religious. Nearly 90% of state-funded public primary schools are run solely by the Catholic Church. Most of the remaining primary schools are run by minority faith churches, or by a nonreligious patron body called Educate Together. Nearly half of all state-funded public second-level schools are run by the Catholic Church. Most of the rest are run by state Education & Training Boards and are described as multi-denominational, but many of these are run in partnership with the Catholic Church or the Church of Ireland. There are currently no fully secular or non-denominational schools in Ireland.

These patron bodies are allowed to determine the ethos of the school, which in most cases is Catholic, and that ethos permeates throughout the whole school day. Even many schools directly run by the state, under Education & Training Boards, have a Catholic ethos and engage in “faith formation”. The Oireachtas (parliament) Education Committee has concluded that multiple patronage and ethos as a basis for policy can lead to segregation and inequality, and that the objectives of admission policy should be equality and integration.


Section 7.3(c) of the Equal Status Act gives an exemption to religious-run, state-funded, schools that allows them to discriminate on the ground of religion in their admissions processes. A Schools Admissions Act in 2018 prevented Catholic primary schools from discriminating in access, but minority faith primary schools and all secondary schools can still discriminate in access on the ground of

In 2016 Nils Muiznieks, then the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, told The Irish Times that:

“You have a system which I have not encountered elsewhere… with the State being held hostage to an extent by patrons… Ireland is bound by international human rights standards and has to provide access to education on a non-discriminatory basis, however it does it.”

The Humanist Association of Ireland argue in their report Equality for Non-Religious

“The reality for many families is one of lack of choice of school in their locality and many are effectively forced to send their children to schools of a particular religious denomination whose ethos is not in conformity with their own.” 


The state’s national curriculum is administered by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), but there is also time put aside for the patron body’s religious education programme. According to the NCCA, “The development of curriculum for religious education remains the responsibility of the different church authorities.” This is usually, though not always, the Catholic Church.

Parents have a constitutional right to exempt their children from religious instruction in schools, but such parents are routinely asked to supervise them personally during school hours because schools will not do so. Some schools are run directly by State Education & Training Boards. In 2018 the Department of Education instructed these schools to give an alternative timetabled subject to students who opt out of religion class. However, after lobbying from the ETBs, the Catholic Church, and Teachers Unions, the Department effectively reversed that

In 2020 Atheist Ireland obtained a legal opinion that the Constitutional right to not attend religious instruction in schools extends to the right to be supervised or given a different subject. This right is not vindicated in Irish schools.16

The state religious education curriculum only includes discussion of atheism and humanism under the heading “Challenges to Faith”. The NCCA recently produced a report on updating this course to cover Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE). However, even if such a course was developed, it would be delivered in accordance with the religious ethos of each school. The Catholic Church has opposed this course, and has effectively prevented it from being introduced.

The ethos of schools permits sex education to be delivered through the lens of the patron body, which in most cases is the Catholic Church. In 2019 the Oireachtas Education Committee recommended, as Atheist Ireland had asked it to do, that the law be changed to remove the role of ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of sex education curricula. This is the first time that an Oireachtas Committee has recognised that students have a right to an objective education for the State curriculum, even in denominational schools, outside of the patron’s religion or values programmes. The change has not yet been legislated


An exemption in Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act allows state-funded Irish schools to legally discriminate against teachers on the ground of religious belief, if “the provision of services in an environment which promotes certain religious values”. This Act was amended to prevent schools from also discriminating on the ground of sexuality or marital status, but they are still allowed to discriminate on the ground of religion. Most teachers in Ireland are expected to teach religious instruction, mostly Catholic, in order to access the teaching profession in the vast majority of state-funded schools.

One consequence of the legal opinion obtained by Atheist Ireland in 2020 is that a teacher is placed in a legal conflict between adherence to Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act versus respecting the constitutional rights of the child under Article 44.3.4 to not attend religious instruction, the inalienable rights of parents to respect for their convictions under Article 42.1 and the rights of atheists, humanists, and secularists to freedom of conscience under Article 44.2.1 and personal rights under

Recommendations from human rights bodies

In August 2014 the UN Human Rights Committee criticised the Irish government for its lack of provision of education to the non-religious and religious minorities stating:

“The Human Rights Committee is concerned about the slow progress in increasing access to secular education through the establishment of non-denominational schools, divestment of the patronage of schools and the phasing out of integrated religious curricula in schools accommodating minority faith or non-faith children.”

In recent years, ten different United Nations and Council of Europe human rights oversight bodies have told Ireland that its schools are breaching the human rights of atheists, agnostics and members of minority faiths:

  • Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner 2017
  • United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child 2016
  • United Nations Committee on ESC Rights 2015
  • United Nations Human Rights Committee 2014
  • Council of Europe Commission Against Racism and Intolerance 2013
  • United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2011
  • United Nations Human Rights Committee 2008
  • Council of Europe Protection of National Minorities 2006
  • United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child 2006
  • United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2005

Family, community and society

Two recent referendums, in 2015 and 2018, have removed the constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and abortion. The Civil Registration Amendment Act 2012 discriminates against and among secular marriage solemnisers.


In 2018 the Irish people passed a referendum to amend the constitution to allow the legalisation of abortion. The new clause that was added to the constitution is:

“Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

Abortion was illegal in Ireland under British rule and remained so after independence. In 1983 a Catholic-led referendum made abortion unconstitutional.

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Campaigners on both sides accepted that Irish women would continue to travel to England for abortions. But in 1992, the parents of a raped 14-year-old girl asked the police if they could use DNA from a foetus in the case against her rapist. The state responded by taking out an injunction preventing the child from travelling to England for an abortion. After a public outcry, the Courts found that a pregnant woman could have an abortion if there was a direct threat to her life. Because this girl was suicidal, she could have an abortion. The case became known as the X Case. It resulted in a further amendment to the constitution, which added:

“This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state. This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.”

In 2012 Savita Halappanavar died at University Hospital Galway in Ireland, after requesting and being denied an abortion. After another public outcry, the law was again relaxed very slightly, and the campaign for more liberal abortion laws intensified. In 2017 a Citizens’ Assembly recommended that the government hold a referendum to introoduce more liberal abortion laws. In 2019 the Irish people passed a referendum to amend the constitution to allow the legailsation of

Marriage Equality

In 2015 the Irish people passed a referendum to amend the constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry. The new clause that was added to the Constitution is:

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

This made Ireland the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality by popular vote, as opposed to by a court decision or a parliamentary vote. It strengthens the argument that the Irish people are more secular than is reflected by the Irish constitution and laws. A separate Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 was passed in April 2015. This included adoption rights for same-sex couples.

Civil Marriages

In 2012 the Civil Registration Act was amended to allow secular bodies to nominate solemnisers for civil marriage ceremonies. This Act overtly discriminates between religious and secular bodies on a number of grounds.

Religious bodies who nominate solemnisers can also promote a political cause, but secular bodies who nominate solemnisers cannot legally promote a political cause. Also, secular bodies have to comply with regulations on length of time in existence, amount of members, and being ethical. These requirements do not apply to religious bodies, whose only condition is that they meet regularly for worship. The Act also discriminates between secular bodies, as only a body whose principal objects are secular, ethical, and humanist (as well as other restrictions) can apply for inclusion on the Register of Solemnisers.

The Government claims that this discrimination has a legitimate aim, which is to ensure that the institution of marriage is protected. When the Bill was being debated in parliament, the Minister suggested that the different rules were intended to prevent Elvis impersonators from solemnising marriages. Atheist Ireland has argued that the Act is a breach of human rights law. It is direct discrimination and, in particular, it breaches Article 26 (Equality before the law without discrimination) of the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights.21

Freedom of belief when seeking asylum

There are applicants who seek asylum in Ireland because of persecution on the basis of religion or belief. The system in place treats vulnerable people with suspicion. Immigrants who are atheists or embers of minority religions can face an overlap of ethnic and religious discrimination.22

Atheist ex-Muslims in the asylum process face two particular problems. One, the state sometimes insists that they are still Muslims who are safe to be sent back to states where they would be in danger. Two, the lack of privacy in Asylum Centres puts them in a perilous position as they must hide their beliefs from some Muslim asylum seekers.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

‘Blasphemy’ law – repealed

In October 2018, the Irish people voted in a constitutional referendum to remove the crime of ‘blasphemy’ from the constitution, opening the door for repeal of the ‘blasphemy’ law. In December 2019 the Oireachtas (parliament) passed the Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Bill 2019, removing the offence of blasphemy from the Defamation Act and from the Censorship of Films Act.23

Incitement to hatred

In 2019, the Department of Justice held a public consultation on future legislation in the area of hate crime and hate speech. Because religion is one of the characteristics that is protected under the law, there is a danger that this might evolve into a ‘blasphemy’ law by another name.

Atheist Ireland made a submission recommending that the state should tackle prejudice against groups through education, and tackle prejudice-motivated crime through law, while protecting the right to freedom of expression, based on human rights principles and standards. The submission argued that the law should protect people from harm, but should not protect ideas or beliefs from criticism, including harsh or unreasonable criticism, or even ridicule.24


“In Ireland the non-religious are now the second largest group in Society after Roman Catholics, but still face religious discrimination. The Irish Constitution begins with “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity” and Catholic social policy is reflected in many of our laws. The Catholic Church in Ireland controls the vast majority of publicly funded schools, which have exemptions from equality laws. A religious oath is required to take up the office of President, or to become a Judge, or to be Taoiseach (Prime Minister), or to hold a number of other high public offices. In recent years, ten different UN and Council of Europe reports have told Ireland that it is infringing on the human rights of atheists, agnostics and minority faith members. It is time for Ireland to realise that it must comply with its human rights obligations and ensure that all citizens have equal rights regardless of their religious or philosophical convictions.”
— Jane Donnelly, Human Rights Officer, Atheist Ireland

“Three recent referendums have shaken the Catholic Berlin Wall that has kept a pluralist Irish people trapped within the laws of a Catholic Irish Constitution. Same-sex couples can now marry on the same basis as their fellow citizens. Pregnant Irish women can have access to safe, supervised, legal healthcare at home. And atheists and religious people alike can criticise religions without fear of blasphemy charges. These three referendums had a consistent two to one majority. But many challenges remain to achieve a secular State. The next tasks are achieving secular schools free from church control, which will be difficult because the extent of the Catholic Church’s control in this area, and removing religious oaths for high office, thus allowing conscientious atheists to take up these positions.”
— Michael Nugent, Chairperson, Atheist Ireland


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