Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion. Based on a constitutional provision, the law makes blasphemy a punishable offense. The government confirmed it would schedule a constitutional referendum on this issue in 2018. The government continued to finance private religious schools, which constituted the vast majority of primary and half of secondary schools; it permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. The law permits religious schools to use religion as a basis for admission. Some parents of children not belonging to the denomination of a religious school, usually Catholic, could not enroll their children in oversubscribed schools. According to a survey, almost a quarter of parents said they baptized their children to ensure they could enroll in school. The government said it planned to encourage an increase in the number of nondenominational primary schools from 109 to 400 by 2030.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) again lobbied for more stringent hate crime legislation, including for incidents motivated by religion. An international NGO and a national group of Muslim women protested a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling allowing workplaces to prohibit women from wearing the hijab. In June unknown assailants attacked a mosque in Galway, throwing stones through mosque windows during evening prayer services.

On several occasions, U.S. embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Education and Skills, and the national police. Underscoring the importance of tolerance, diversity, and religious freedom, embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs to discuss their concerns. The Charge d’Affaires hosted a Thanksgiving reception bringing together religious leaders for a discussion on religious freedom and tolerance.

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5 million (July 2017 estimate). The 2016 census indicates the population is approximately 78 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Church of Ireland (Protestant), 2 percent other, 1 percent Muslim, 1 percent Orthodox Christian (including Greek, Russian, and Coptic Orthodox), and 1 percent unspecified Christian, while 10 percent stated no religious affiliation and 3 percent did not specify their religion. There are small numbers of Presbyterians, Hindus, Apostolic Pentecostals, Pentecostals, and Jews. The census estimates the Jewish population to be approximately 2,500. The number of Christians and Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, Muslims and Hindus from South Asia, and Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe continues to grow, especially in larger urban areas.

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the free profession and practice of religion, subject to public order and morality. The constitution references “the Most Holy Trinity” and “our divine Lord, Jesus Christ,” and stipulates the state shall hold the name of God in reverence and honor and respect religion. It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief and guarantees not to endow any religion. The constitution stipulates every religious denomination has the right to manage its own affairs, own and acquire property, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes. It states legislation providing for government aid to schools shall not discriminate among schools under the management of different religious denominations nor affect the right of a child to attend any school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.

The constitution makes blasphemy a punishable offense, although the government last prosecuted such a case in 1855. The law defines blasphemy as uttering or publishing language “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion,” when the intent and result are “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” Violations are punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($30,000).

There is no legal requirement for religious groups to register with the government, nor is there any formal mechanism for government recognition of a religious group. Religious groups may apply to the Revenue Commissioners (the tax authority) and register as a charity or an NGO to receive tax exemptions. To qualify, groups must operate exclusively for charitable purposes. Constituted organizations that operate for exclusively charitable purposes and provide a clear public benefit may register as charities. The law requires all charitable organizations carrying out activities in the country to register with and to provide certain information relating to their organization to the Charities Regulator, a government-appointed independent authority. The Regulator maintains a public register of charitable organizations and ensures their compliance with the law. Organizations must apply their income and property solely toward the promotion of their main charitable object, as set out in their governing instruments (such as constitution, memorandum and articles of association, deed of trust, or rules).

Under the constitution, the Department of Education and Skills provides funding to “national” schools, which are privately owned and managed. The government pays most of the building and administrative costs, teachers’ salaries, and a set amount per pupil. In funding schools, the constitution stipulates the state shall have due regard “for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.”

Almost all primary schools and approximately half of secondary schools (vocational schools are state run and nonreligious) are religiously affiliated. At the primary level, 90 percent of all schools are Catholic, 6 percent Church of Ireland, 2 percent multidenominational,1 percent other religious groups, and 1 percent not religiously affiliated. Patrons, who are usually members of the religious groups and affiliated with religious organizations with which the school is affiliated, manage the school themselves or appoint a board of management to do so. Patrons often provide land for schools and contribute to building and administrative costs. The law permits schools with a religious patron to use religion as a basis for admissions, even if it is not oversubscribed.

The government permits, but does not require, religious instruction, faith-based classes, or general religion classes, in “national” schools. Although religious instruction is part of the curriculum of most schools, parents may exempt their children from such instruction. Religious schools teach about their religion but multidenominational schools generally teach about religion in a broader context. Students may opt out and sit in another classroom. The government funds salaries for those teachers who teach religion classes in “national” schools.

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), an independent statutory body, hears cases of reported workplace discrimination, including claims based on religion. The WRC may refer cases for mediation, investigate these cases, or decide the case itself. If the adjudication officer finds there has been discrimination, he or she can order compensation for the effects of discrimination and/or corrective action. Litigants may appeal WRC decisions in the courts.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is an independent public body accountable to parliament, whose purpose is to protect and promote human rights and equality and to build a culture of respect for human rights, including religious freedom. The commission works at the policy level to review the effectiveness of human rights and equality law, as well as public policy and practice. It also works with communities, including religious groups, and other civil society groups to monitor and report on the public’s experiences of human rights, religious freedom, and equality.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In September Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar confirmed the country would hold a constitutional referendum in October 2018 on the question of whether to revoke the constitutional provision making blasphemy a punishable offense.

In January Education Minister Richard Bruton announced new plans aimed at increasing the number of multidenominational and nonreligious primary schools from 109 to 400 by 2030 by encouraging nonreligious or multidenominational patrons to open new schools and through an “accelerated process” of divestment – one by which religiously affiliated patrons of denominational schools transfer ownership to nondenominational or multidenominational patrons. In July Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said the process of divestment was too slow and there was “a stubborn reluctance” within the Church to divest. He also stated he believed it was inappropriate for school enrollment to depend on a baptismal certificate.

The government continued to encourage patrons to open more schools with nonreligious or multidenominational patronage. The government’s New Schools Establishment Group advised Bruton on the patronage of the new schools, but no new schools were established during the year.

School patrons, generally affiliated with religious denominations, continued to define the ethos of schools and to determine the development and implementation of the religious education curriculum in primary schools. Curricula varied by school and could include teaching about the patron’s religion, the religious history of the country, or an overview of world religions.

Parents of unbaptized children continued to report difficulty enrolling their children in some local, religiously based schools that were oversubscribed and gave priority admissions to children of that religion. In rural areas, parents said finding alternatives to schools with Catholic patrons was especially difficult. The NGO Equate released the results of a survey conducted during the year in which 72 percent of respondents agreed the government should change the law so baptism could no longer be a requirement for school admission in state-funded schools. According to the survey, 24 percent of parents who baptized their children reported they would not have done so if it had not been a requirement for school admission.

Several state agencies, including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) and the Garda (national police) Racial and Intercultural Office (GRIO), continued to enforce equality legislation and work on behalf of minority religious groups. These agencies organized community events to include individuals of diverse faiths. The IHREC reviewed and made recommendations to draft legislation to ensure drafts met human rights and equality standards. The GRIO’s liaison officers continued to engage with immigrant minority religious groups on a regular basis to inform them of police services and educate them on their rights.

On January 29, Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone, and other senior government officials participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration. The event was organized by the NGO Holocaust Education Trust Ireland in association with the Department of Justice and Equality, the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration, and Dublin City Council.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

NGOs, including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Immigrant Council of Ireland, Anti-Racism Network Ireland, the National Steering Group Against Hate Crime, and the European Network Against Racism Ireland, again lobbied for legislation against hate crimes, including religiously motivated hate crimes, and to ensure prejudice was taken into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing criminals.

According to the newspaper Irish Independent, Shmael Heirouche, a Dutch citizen living in the country, was sentenced on May 31 in Cork Circuit Criminal Court to five years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to the charge of threatening to kill or cause serious harm. In November 2016, Heirouche had threatened his two French housemates, praised the Islamic State, and told police if he had a sword he would behead Jews.

In March the NGOs Muslim Sisters of Eire and the European Network Against Racism organized a protest outside the European Parliament’s offices in Dublin in response to an ECJ ruling stating workplaces had the legal right to prohibit women from wearing hijabs to work.

According to media reports in August, moderators of the country’s largest internet forum had their personal information leaked online after they banned users who had posted content that broke rules banning hate speech and racism. Twelve moderators on the website Boards.ie who had removed content from posters attacking Islam, among other comments, had their names, addresses, and phone numbers posted on other websites.

On June 5, unknown assailants attacked a mosque in Galway. The assailants threw rocks at the mosque, shattering windows during evening prayers. There were no injuries. The mosque imam said he believed a terrorist attack in London earlier that week had sparked the Galway incident, because one of the accused men in the London attack had previously resided in and been married in Ireland before returning to Britain.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the integration of religious minorities and incidents of discrimination with representatives of the Human Rights Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Education and Skills, and the Garda.

Embassy representatives discussed with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian groups and religious and education-focused NGOs the importance of promoting religious tolerance and diversity. They also discussed with these groups the challenges of religious minorities, including crime, integration, education admissions policy, and securely practicing their faith.

In November the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving reception, bringing together key religious leaders for a discussion and exchange of ideas. The Charge highlighted the importance of religious freedom and honored a Holocaust survivor and an advocate for reconciliation and peace.

2017 Report on International Religious Freedom: Ireland
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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future