Can atheists hold public office in the Republic of Ireland?

Under the Irish constitution both the President and judges must take an oath that opens with phrase “In the presence of Almighty God” and concludes with the phrase “May God direct and sustain me”. Are office-holders allowed to omit those or take an affirmation of some sort? What about other offices (such as Dail deputies or Senators)? Has the issue even come up (say an atheist being appointed judge)? AFAIK all Irish Presidents have been either Catholic or Protestant.

Why couldn’t an atheist just say the required words, believing that they are just ceremonial, without any actual supreme being to hear them?

I know several atheists who say ‘damn it!’ when they stub their toe on a step, without actually believing that some supreme being is therefore going to condemn that step to everlasting damnation.

I don’t think TDs or Senators have to take any oath on assuming office.

Incoming Presidents and judges have to take and subscribe to the oath with the wording you quoted above.

Members of the Council of State have to take an oath that makes reference to “Almighty God”.

The exact wording of these oaths is set down in the Constitution (Articles 12, 31, and 34) and can not be varied except by a referendum.

t-bonham’s suggestion doesn’t really work. If a person who is known to be atheist says these words, when he/she clearly does not believe them, the question might be asked whether they are equally happy to disregard the remaining words of the oath, or any other solemn statement they may make in the course of their duties.

Well, in real life, here in the US, it’s a moot point because it’s virtually impossible to be elected to office if you announce that you are an atheist. It seems to me that I’ve seen a number of surveys asking questions like, “Would you vote for a ____ for XYZ office?” and the options are, black person, woman, homosexual, Jew, etc. And coming in at the bottom of these lists of traits is always “atheist.”

The US Supreme court also endorsed a concept called “Ceremonial Deism”, to avoid conflict between customary usages (such as “In God we Trust” on the coinage) and the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. It seems to me that if this became a stumbling block concerning the sincerity of an atheist pledging to Irish office, some similar end run could be used. In effect, you observe that such ceremonial usages are actually devoid of any significant religious content. The office holder is simply paying respect to a tradition which has become secularized.

Congressman Pete Stark was re-elected in 2008 after receiving a great deal of publicity for being the top elected official in the U.S. to admit to being an atheist (of course you did say “virtually”).

He was a very entrenched incumbent when he did so. He is also a Unitarian, which doesn’t preclude his being an atheist, but in the minds of the public, it probably means “Well, he goes to church, so that’s OK then.” When it comes to the religious practices of government officials, many people care more about the form of the thing than actual beliefs in any doctrine.

This is flatly wrong. While there is such a concept in case law it does not apply at all to oaths - for which an affirmation may be used instead for all US officeholders. Similarly, while an atheist may not be successful in removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, neither may he be forced to say the Pledge.

Whatever ceremonial deism may mean, it has no impact at all on these oaths or the religious implications of being forced to swear them - this is why we have always provided for the affirmation here.

Relatively few public offices in the Republic of Ireland require the officeholder to take any oath at all.

Where an oath is required by law, the law nearly always provides for the alternative of a (non-religious) affirmation.

The exception is found in the oaths explicitly required in the Constitution. When the Constitition (in the 1930s) was drafted no provision was made for the alternative of an affirmation. Whether this was because at the time the possibility of non-religious officeholders was not on anybody’s radar, or because the whole question of the public legal status of religion and religious belief was being handled with considerable sensitivity, I cannot say. It’s worth bearing in mind that the question on everyone’s mind in Ireland in the 1930s was not whether atheists and agnostics would be discriminated against, but whether Protestants would be.

It’s also worth pointing out that the inspiration behind the drafting of the Constitution, Eamonn de Valera, had a bit of a history with oaths. In 1922 he refused to take his seat in parliament because, under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, that would have required him to take an oath of allegiance to the British crown. By 1927 he had overcome his scruples to the point where he felt able to take the oath, having first of all publicly denounced it as an “empty formula”, and so take his seat. Electoral success followed; in 1932 he became prime minister, as a result of which he was able to put in train the preparation and adoption of a new constitution.

For de Valera, it could be argued, the significance of an oath was not that it excluded officeholders who disagreed with its contents, but that it made officeholders say explicitly if they disagreed with its contents.

Of course. See also Art. VI of the Constitution, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States…”

I think you misread yabob’s post. He(?) said that the Irish body responsible for oath-business thingies could decide to apply Ceremonial Deism to oaths in Ireland, not that it was applied to oaths in the US. Obviously, since we have an established tradition of religious freedom, we don’t need to have that protection.

I don’t know the mechanism for introducing American legal principles into Irish law, save the straightforward method of passing legislation.

Oh no, you must not invade Ireland! Surely that has already been done. :eek:

How far back are you going with “always”? State founding, or country?

You’re taking me too literally. I merely wished to point out that it is possible to interpret rote statements invoking “God” as not really being professions of religious belief following long customary usage, “Ceremonial Deism” being the term applied by the SCOTUS to allow the pledge of allegiance to stand with “under God” in it, for example. I was suggesting that some similar interpretation might be applied to the Irish oath by some body of sufficient authority if it was tactically easier than changing the wording.

Background on “Ceremonial Deism” as a term. It was coined by Dean Rostow of the Yale Law School. In the context of the SCOTUS decision, Brennan said:

It seems to me that the same can be said of governmental oaths of office, rendering them fit for taking by an atheist with neither personal compromise of their principals, or aspersions cast on their sincerity.

How did Proinsias de Rossa [former Minister for Social Welfare] get away with it?

It’s only an issue for judges, presidents and members of the Council of State.

In reality, would it become politicised? I don’t know. If I were elected or appointed to one of those offices, I would probably do as t-bonham suggested and take the oath, despite not believing in God, just as de Valera took the Oath of Allegiance. So maybe it was too strong to say his suggestion “doesn’t really work”. But it is deeply unsatisfactory and leaves one open to unfair accusations.

I dunno hibernicus, I really don’t think it would be an issue. I mean I’m sure there are people who would be bothered by the person being an atheist to begin with (although I don’t think there would be a huge number of them). But I suspect anyone who doesn’t care about that isn’t going to care about the person taking an oath that they have no option but to take.

In fact … I think it would probably be a bigger issue if a potential judge or whatever refused to take the oath. Things like that seem to fall into the category of “sure, what’s the harm in it” … like the angelus or the law against selling alcohol on Good Friday.

To clarify: I’m talking about Irish public opinion, not my own.

Nothing stopping an Irish court from reviewing the jurisprudence of the SCOTUS in the issue of ceremonial deism, finding it the US doctrine to be persuasive, and incorporating it into Irish law. That kind of borrowing and analysis is fairly common in the international common law world, outside the US.