Is the Republic a secular or a religious state?

Turkey is scene of some of the most explicit tensions between a jealously secular republic and its post Islamist government (Morning Ireland). But, however faint, there may be similar echoes in the Irish Republic. Indeed, Conor Lenihan was somewhat stumped when when after asserting that Sikh Garda officers could not wear their turbans because they could not display religious symbols, Will Crawley asked whether such a ban should not also apply to crucifixes and crosses? It’s a theme ably followed up by Fintan O’Toole in today’s Irish Times:

For my own part, I do not think Sikh officers should be allowed to wear turbans, or Muslim officers allowed to wear hijabs. I entirely agree with Garda spokesman Kevin Donohue when he says that “the person standing in front of you should be representative of the police force – not a Sikh police officer, not a Catholic police officer, not a Jewish police officer”.

Such a stance can be hard on Sikhs and members of other faiths, but it is the only way to avoid a Balkanisation of State services, not just in the Garda or Army, but in schools, hospitals, the Dáil and the courts. The preservation of a public realm that everyone enters equally as a citizen is a value of greater importance than any individual’s right to express a personal identity while performing a State service.

The problem is that this State has absolutely no right to take such a stance. So long as we refuse even to discuss a non-sectarian education system, so long as we evoke a specific religious belief system in every aspect of our system of governance, we have no right to tell anyone that they have to keep their religion separate from their public function. Unless we are to practise naked discrimination, the logic of our current system is that our police officers can wear turbans, hijabs or Jedi light sabres – anything that is required by their faith. We also have to provide a range of religious schools in every community, all paid for by the taxpayer. We have to start Dáil sessions not with one prayer, but with at least 25 – one for each of the main religious groupings in the State – and with an atheist evocation of humanist principles.

Or we could just cop on to ourselves and start creating a public realm in which all religions are respected because none is invoked.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty