We have today sent the following letter to all of the members of the respective Committees on Procedure and Privilege of both the Dail and the Seanad.
We are writing to you as a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to request that the Oireachtas cease the practice of starting daily business with the prayer: “Direct, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every word and work of ours may always begin from Thee, and by Thee be happily ended; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
It is inappropriate that any of our parliamentarians should publicly ask a god, particularly a specific variation of a specific god, to direct their actions and every word and work of theirs. It suggests either (a) that they are being directed in their work by messages that they believe come from a supernatural being, or (b) that they are taking part in the prayer without believing it to be true.
That said, the very practice of public prayers in parliament is more of a problem than the content of the prayers. Making the prayer more inclusive of other religious beliefs would not solve the problem. A democratic parliament should not institutionalize the public expression of the personal religious or nonreligious beliefs of any of its members, whatever they may be. For this reason, we would be equally opposed (as no doubt you would be) to our parliamentarians starting their day by publicly asserting that there are no gods.
These daily prayers also infringe upon the human right to freedom of conscience, in two ways. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that parliamentarians must not be forced to take a religious oath, and it follows that neither should they be forced to participate in a religious prayer. Also, if they choose to opt out of participating in the prayer, they are then being forced to indirectly reveal information about their religious or nonreligious beliefs. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled, in a case involving courtroom oaths in Greece, that this contravenes the human right to freedom of conscience. Furthermore, staff members, who have to be in the chamber, must sit through these daily prayers.
History of the daily prayer
In the early days of the Irish State, the Speaker of the Dáil and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad recognised that such a public prayer was inappropriate in a democratic parliament.
In January 1923, four years after the first meeting of the Oireachtas, the Earl of Wicklow first suggested to the Seanad that “some sort of reference should be made at the opening of our proceedings to the God whom we all worship.” The Cathaoirleach replied on behalf of himself and the Speaker of the Dáil that it was “a delicate and difficult subject” and he suggested that “perhaps the simplest and most dignified solution would be, if the Dáil and the Seanad were to arrange that at the beginning of business, all members standing up, there should be a moment's silence, and then each member could make what prayer he thought fit, according to his own belief. Otherwise, it might be difficult, and, as I say, delicate, to frame any sort of procedure that would receive universal acceptance.”
Sadly, this early respect for democratic equality and freedom of conscience was not to last long. In November 1923 the Seanad first adopted a daily prayer which had been agreed with the Protestant and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Dublin. Then in July 1932 the Dáil adopted the following daily prayer: “Direct, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every prayer and work of ours may always begin from Thee, and by Thee be happily ended; through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” At some stage after that, the current wording came about when the phrase “every prayer and work of ours” was changed to the broader concept of “every word and work of ours” beginning and ending with the Christian god.
Recent calls to end the practice
In recent decades, as Ireland has become more and more pluralist, and the original idea of “the God whom we all worship” has become less and less tenable, the inappropriateness of the daily public prayer has been raised repeatedly in the Oireachtas.
In April 1999 Deputy Prionsias de Rossa noted that the prayer does not acknowledge that other members of this society belong to different religions. In May 2003 Senator David Norris asked how appropriate it is to continue the prayer because there are large numbers of people from different religions. In December 2007 Senator David Norris said, as a believing Christian, that he feels offended when he hears the prayer everyday, as it is absurd of the House to invoke the name of Jesus Christ and state: “every word and work of ours may always begin from thee and by thee be happily ended through Christ”. In February 2010 Senator Ivana Bacik asked why there is a prayer every time the Seanad sits, and called for a debate on the matter. In July 2011 Senator Ivana Bacik said she intended to propose to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that they end the practice, and Senator David Norris added that we live in a democracy where we have had agnostics, atheists, Muslims and Jews in the Oireachtas.
Two responses in particular show that some parliamentarians do not understand the concept of a modern pluralist Republic. In December 2007 Senator John Hanafin said: “I welcome that we pray every morning in the Chamber before conducting our business. It allows us to renew our efforts to do our best and invoke God to assist us in our efforts. I note societies that turned their back on God — fascist and communist — and relied solely on Man’s logic, rose and fell quickly.” And Senator Donie Cassidy, who was responding to matters raised on the order of business, said: “I believe the prayer is a good start to the day but I welcome any suggestions the Senators might have, which we could consider at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, on improving mindsets and having the Holy Spirit touch Senators in a stronger way than usual at certain times.”
We are writing to request that the Oireachtas cease the practice of starting each day’s business with a prayer. It is inappropriate in a modern pluralist Republic, and it infringes upon the human right to freedom of conscience by forcing people to reveal, directly or indirectly, information about their religious or nonreligious philosophical beliefs.