Religion in Ireland's 'Public Squares': Education and the Family and Expanding Equality Claims

Public Law, pp. 284-307, April 2011

17 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2010 Last revised: 20 Apr 2011

See all articles by Siobhan Mullally

Siobhan Mullally

University College Cork

Darren O'Donovan

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: July 26, 2010


The place of religion in the public sphere in Europe has attracted significant commentary and debate in recent years. In a post-secular age, it is argued, Europe’s ‘faltering project’ must recognise the significance of religion and the role that religious discourse can play in democratic debate. In Ireland, religious discourse has often played a contentious role in debates on the meaning and scope of fundamental rights. Although the 1937 Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, did not provide for any established Church, and explicitly protected religious freedom, a conservative Catholic ethos permeated much of the constitutional text. Given its distinct historical traditions, and the religious ethos that permeates the constitutional text, it is not surprising that religious discourse has long had a role in the public sphere in Ireland. That role, however, is changing and continues to be contested.

Recent developments on the role of religion in public education, and on changing family forms, have raised questions as to the limits of religious claims and the potential for conflict with equality guarantees. Reflecting the increasing religious diversity within the State, Ireland has had its own ‘headscarf’ controversy. The legal and policy responses to this controversy reflect the distinct role that religion and religious orders have played in education in Ireland to date. Religious claims have also arisen in legislative debates on the legal recognition of same sex partnerships, challenging the State’s commitment to non-discrimination, on grounds, inter alia, of gender, sexual orientation, and religion. This article explores these developments, and suggests that human rights norms may assist in moving towards a contingent embrace of post-secularism, skipping along the way, a more comprehensive encounter with secularism.

Keywords: Religious Freedom, Discrimination, Same Sex Marraige, Civil Partnership, Education Rights, Sexual Orientation, Secularism

Suggested Citation

Mullally, Siobhan and O'Donovan, Darren, Religion in Ireland's 'Public Squares': Education and the Family and Expanding Equality Claims (July 26, 2010). Public Law, pp. 284-307, April 2011. Available at SSRN:

Siobhan Mullally (Contact Author)

University College Cork ( email )

5 Bloomfield Terrace Western Road


Darren O'Donovan

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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