July 26: Cross in council a symbol of exclusion

Cllr Kevin Sheahan might do well to reflect on the pitfalls of organising governance along religious lines, writes John Hogan

Cllr Kevin Sheahan might do well to reflect on the pitfalls of organising governance along religious lines, writes John Hogan

While taking a break from planning religiously-inspired refurbishments to the council chamber, Cathaoirleach Kevin Sheahan should read the words of Harry A. Blackmun, the former Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.

“When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored (sic) beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some,” wrote Blackmun, who was a lifelong Methodist.

Although his words are as relevant today as when Blackmun wrote them in 1992, their salience appears lost on the cathaoirleach and several of his fellow councillors. The installation of a cross, or any religious symbol for that matter, in the council chambers would serve as a symbol of exclusion for those of us who do not subscribe to that particular religion, if any at all.

While Cllr Sheahan has reassured us that neither Muslims nor the Jewish community would have an issue with his proposal, I respectfully question the rigorousness of the survey he carried out to arrive at this conclusion.

And what of those of us in the growing atheist and agnostic communities? Cllr Sheahan’s proposal would reinforce the commonly-felt sentiment that Irish politics is no place for non-believers. In an age of unprecedented apathy towards politics, surely the Cathaoirleach should be making suggestions that are likely to solicit public interest in the political process, rather than fighting for the erection of a symbol that will serve no function but to divide opinion.

Cllr Sheahan mentions that there are nations with strong Islamic laws where people don’t blush behind their religious beliefs. I’m sure the Cathaoirleach would agree with me that in many such states, one does not require much intuition to see the pitfalls of organising politics and governance along religious lines.

He also points to “crosses and grottoes on the landscapes of Ireland” as evidence for the appropriateness of his proposal but such reasoning suggests a considerable lack of awareness in relation to how Ireland has changed. Centuries of unquestioned religious influence in Ireland does not trump centuries of evidence expounding the wisdom of the separation of church and state.

In 1973, the Irish people had the common sense to vote for the removal from our Constitution of the provision that allowed for the “special position” of the Catholic Church. How can we claim that such a special position is not still retained if we are to go down the route of allocating wall space in the people’s chamber to religious symbols? Hopefully, in this instance, common sense will once again prevail.

John Hogan



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