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The Iona Blog

Mr Gilmore and the “Separation of Church and State”

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 6th July 2012

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore's (pictured) speech on Sunday, as well as distorting the true meaning of personal freedom also used another theme to advance his socially radical agenda.

Issues like same-sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research and the rollback of religious education were part of a mission to complete “the separation of Church and State” he said.

Mr Gilmore told us: “But it is my strong view that the best - and indeed the only - means of guaranteeing religious freedom for all, is the full separation of Church and State.

“It is not only religious freedom which is guaranteed by the separation of Church and State, but freedom itself.”

Mr Gilmore's analysis seems to be that laws should not be influenced in any way by religion. In an echo of the Justice Minister in the last Government, Dermot Ahern, he seems to think that religion clouds one's judgement.

Taken to its extreme, this position would require wholesale changes to our laws in ways which one suspects Mr Gilmore has not considered. For example, our criminal law is suffused with Christian concepts. The idea that one has to prove a guilty mind (the mens rea) for most indictable offences, for example, comes directly from Christianity.

A more fundamental problem with this view, however, is that it again presumes that there is some sort of “neutral” position that lawmakers can take when dealing with sensitive moral issues. Take away religion, Mr Gilmore seems to think, and all you are left with is sweet reason.

But why single out religion? Couldn't equally say that, for example, social democracy clouds the judgement of the legislator? What about secular materialism? Does that perspective cloud judgement? Utilitarianism? The list could go on and on. Mr Gilmore seems not to have thought of this.

The other major problem with his speech was the list of issues he chose to highlight his chosen crusade.

Take same-sex marriage, for example. France is one of the most secular countries in the world. Few, if any countries take the separation of Church and State more seriously. And yet last year that country's Supreme Court found that the state ban on same-sex marriage did not breach its equality law. The French law banning same-sex marriage had nothing to do with the Church; French law is explictly and proudly secular.

On the issue of embryonic stem cell research, Italy, Austria and Germany, all of which are more secular than Ireland (for the time being), all ban the practice. Again, it has nothing to do with the Church.

What Mr Gilmore's approach amounts to is a rhetorical device: first dismiss religious views about issues as irrational, then dismiss all opposition to radical legal changes as religiously motivated. It's a neat trick, but in a democracy we deserve a level of debate that is more informed and comprehensive.

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