News Ian O'Doherty

Thursday 18 September 2014

The crucifix – symbol of hope or discrimination?

Published 18/04/2014 | 02:30

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Religious freedom? Gazan law forbids public displays of crucifixes

We've come a long way in the last few years, although not always in the right direction. So it's fitting that this week, of all weeks, should see a rather daft row break out over whether the sight of a crucifix is offensive or not.

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As you may have noticed, Kerry county councillors have become embroiled in a row over whether a cross should be erected in their new council chambers and, as is often the case with local council matters, it has become embroiled in gombeenism, sloganeering and, this being Ireland, absenteeism.

Kerry county councillor John Joe Culloty had proposed that they install the offending item when their new buildings are opened and twice as many members voted in favour of the cross being present. But, interestingly, officials insist that they might not accede to the request because, you guessed it, they were worried about offending somebody.

In fact, according to the council's director of corporate services, John Flynn, who argued against the motion: "It raises issues and probably goes against equality legislation, in particular the Equality Act and the Equal Status Act."

And after the vote a council spokesman said: "We are obliged to carry out motions passed by councillors – but only in so far as other legislation is not breached."

And so, maybe no cross. Which is ironic, because now the councillors are very cross indeed.

I have sympathy for Councillor Culloty when he says: "When anyone tries to promote our faith it seems to be very controversial, and I can't understand that.

"I don't want to upset anybody or insult anybody but that doesn't mean that we can't express our faith without putting it in the face of other people.

"Because the majority of people are of Christian faith in this country, a lot of people go from one extreme to another and we've gone too far the other way."

To some of the faithful, this must seem like another slap in the face and they can be forgiven for thinking that all across the Western world, Christianity is now seen as being fair game for criticisms and prohibitions that would never be applied to, for instance, Muslims, who are more than adept at reacting to any perceived slight against their faith in swiftly mobilised masses.

Christians, on the other hand, seem to take that bit in the Bible about turning the other cheek rather too literally and that is why they are such easy prey for the diversity brigade who know that they can say things about them that they would never dream of saying about other faiths – because it's simply not worth the hassle.

We've seen this come to absurd levels in Britain where a woman is allowed to cover her face with a niqab while on trial while other people have been be disciplined in the workplace for wearing a cross.

And, closer to home, we have the usual rubbish in Ireland every year when people complain about religious symbols in hospitals at Christmas time.

I mentioned this a few years ago and pointed out that zealotry comes in all stripes and some atheists can be just as intolerant as religious types – in fact, both sides have the same kind of smug, dictatorial bores in their ranks who think they have the answer.

And, as usual, some professional atheists, who seem to think that a shared disbelief in a God means we have to agree on everything else, accused me of somehow going against the herd. As if everyone on Team Atheist has to share a vociferous urge to eradicate overt displays of religiosity in public life – a crucifix in a council chamber, or a nativity crib in a hospital are all fair game for their ire.

But as much as I can sympathise with the councillors who supported the motion, and pains me though it does to agree with anything a Shinner says, Toireasa Ferris was right when she asked: "Where does religion come in to pothole filling?"

And that is the crux of the matter – because as much as I like certain Christian traditions like Christmas, and as much as I deplore the spiteful and vengeful way some campaigners go about trying to eradicate that cultural history from our society, the simple fact is that a council chamber, like a classroom, is not the place for religion.

These councillors have every right to follow whatever brand of faith gets them through the night.

But, equally, the people they represent have every right to expect that their councillor is more concerned with filling pot holes than making reference to God.

But this isn't so much a row between the religious and the non-religious, it's more an example of when bad law is used by one side or the other to get their way – in this case, the bad law concerned is the Equality Act and the Equal Status Act which, the council official warned, could 'probably' be used to prevent the cross from going up.

Now, I would have thought that the fact he used the word 'probably' is proof that he doesn't really know whether it would be a breach of the law or not, but he wasn't prepared to take the risk – for whatever reason.

However, as much as some of us might resent the use of probable laws against freedom of expression, the argument against the ornament was handed an open goal by Independent councillor Michael Cahill who pointed out that: "Maybe it would encourage more of the truth to be told."

And that really is why so many of us are so irked by public piety – this arrogant and demonstrably false presumption that adherence to a religion is somehow a guarantee of truth telling and honesty.

And as we have come to learn at incalculable cost in this country, not only are piety and honesty uncomfortable bedfellows, they can often be mutually exclusive.

So, while I can feel the pain of the councillors who feel they are having their religious freedoms infringed, there is a simple and brutal, but unequivocally logical, response – keep religion in the home or in the church, where it belongs and not in the council chamber, where it doesn't belong at all.

Although that same argument could be made for the 18 councillors who were absent from the vote. Because the figure of two-to-one in favour doesn't sound quite so compelling when you consider that only nine of them bothered to turn up and six voted in favour.

Ah yeah, local democracy at its finest.

Irish Independent

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