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Ireland’s debate over ‘almighty God’ oath won’t be heard by rights court

Europe’s human rights court declined to get embroiled in a political battle over a requirement in the Irish constitution that the president pledge an oath to “almighty God” upon taking office.

(CN) — The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday declined to take up a case brought by a group of Irish politicians seeking to remove a requirement for Irish presidents to utter an oath to “almighty God” upon being sworn in.

The Strasbourg-based court said it couldn't rule on the dispute because the Irish politicians were not directly affected by the religious oath requirement. The politicians, among them prominent figures, believed their case could be heard because there was a chance they could one day be made to take a religious oath that goes against their conscience.

The court disagreed and said the politicians failed to provide “convincing evidence of the likelihood” that they would be affected. In other words, the court said it could not consider the matter because they were not on the cusp of taking the oath or were unlikely to ever be elected president.

But this new battle over religion in Ireland – a deeply Roman Catholic nation undergoing massive cultural shifts such as the legalization of abortion and gay marriage – is far from over.

Roisin Shortall, a co-leader of the Social Democrats party and one of the litigants, said she will try to get the question of the religious oath voted on in a general referendum. An abortion ban was overturned in a 2018 referendum and gay marriage was legalized in a 2015 referendum.

Earlier this year, Irish President Michael D. Higgins stirred the debate when he said in an interview on the BBC that the religious oath should be removed and replaced with an affirmation. Higgins has described himself as “spiritual” and Irish media have noted his Christmas addresses have gone without mentioning Christ or Christianity.

Upon taking office at St. Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle, Ireland's constitution requires its presidents to say: “In the presence of almighty God… May God direct and sustain me.”

Members of Ireland's Council of State, an advisory panel to the president that comprises top government officials including the prime minister, also must take a similar oath.

“In a modern republic, it is anathema that those elected to one of the highest political offices in the land, that of president, are required to swear an oath to 'almighty God,'” Shortall said in a statement Thursday.

The European Court of Human Rights noted that religious oaths have been criticized by United Nations Human Rights Committee and that Irish parliamentary committees and its Constitutional Convention in the past have proposed removing the religious oath and replacing it with a secular alternative.

Besides Shortall, the other politicians seeking to nix the religious oath are John Brady, a Sinn Fein member of Ireland's lower chamber in parliament, David Norris, an independent senator of the upper chamber, and Fergus Finlay, a Labour Party member and prominent activist who sought his party’s nomination for the presidency in 2011.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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