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Freedom for religion

This week, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Sean Brady, claimed that proposals that would remove the legal exemption from the confessional seal represent a challenge to the right of freedom of conscience and to the basis of a free society.

To my mind, this misunderstands what a free society and the free exercise of religion means in its traditional sense. Or at the very least, is not the most classical interpretation of the republican ideal.

The principle of a free and equal society is characterized well by Atticus Finch, who in response to his daughter’s query of the meaning of democracy in To Kill a Mockingbird answers “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none”. In other words, law must apply to every citizen, without a rational basis for distinction such as age. What is lawful for one, is lawful for another; what is wrong for one person to do, does not become right when done by a group.

What does the principle of not prohibiting the free exercise of religion mean in conjunction with the equal right of all? In the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, where it was first most clearly formulated in a legal context, it is linked with the right of free assembly and free speech,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This should be considered in its context in 1789, and in the context too of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration of 1689. The case then was against the established Church of England and the establishment of particular religions in some of the US colonies. Coupled with establishment had been a legal intolerance for the religious assembly of dissenters.

The free exercise of religion guarantees that a meeting of a community which would not otherwise be challenged cannot be prohibited simply that it is a religious meeting. It does not give a cleric the legal right to evade prosecution for not reporting a crime because of the strictures of canon law, just as it would not give an imam the right to oblige members of their community to be subject to Sharia law to their detriment.

As outlined in the Constitution of Ireland, this is even clearer, with a qualification for public order and morality:

44.2.1°

Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.

It is apparent to me that the code that would allow for the horrific incident outlined in The Irish Times editorial on Thursday, where a priest received absolution on 1,500 occasions for sexually abusing children, lacks basic concepts of morality. But we need not go as far as Australia to find a cleric who would have been charged has a law such as is proposed been in place.

As Carol Hunt recently reminded us, in comparison with another case, Sean Brady was in 1975 party to swearing two children not to reveal that Brendan Smyth had abused them, a man who continued to rape and abuse children until his arrest in 1991, after the Roman Catholic Church moved him from parish to parish. Brady’s fears of the implications of such a new law holding everyone, be they priest or layman, equally accountable for crimes they are aware of, have to be seen in the context of his own digression. It is indeed difficult in this context to understand how he can lay claim to speak with any authority on the subject of morality, or more importantly, how it is that continues to receive an audience.

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  1. John
    3 September, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    A superb post.

  2. 3 September, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Good post. One thing I’m tired of, though (and you don’t do it) is people misusing the Atticus Finch argument when clearly attacking a specific group. “No, no. I’m banning Muslim-style headscarves for EVERYONE”.

    There’s a Anatole France quote which I always enjoyed: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

  3. 4 September, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    As usual, a well reasoned, articulate and intelligent piece. You successfully highlight the contradiction that is special privilege for quasi-legal entities, like religions, in a republic. 

    The keyword however, of the piece, is traditional. Ireland has been a Catholic nation, since even before Statehood. No matter what the Constitution says or laws the Dail enact, Catholicism remains, as it has ever been, separate and superior to the Republic. 

    This has only been questioned in the very recent past and I fear this Catholic country, this yet to be fully realised Republic, is not ready or prepared to take on the special dispensations it affords clerics in the practice of their rites. I fear this Catholic people would prefer to allow men to keep the secrets of child abusers than create a single Republic with a single obligation to the laws of that Republic. 

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