The Dail today passed the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill, despite several TDs highlighting concerns raised by Atheist Ireland in our briefing document ‘Legislating for Equality In Marriage Registration.’
Atheist Ireland is now writing to the President asking him to send the Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.
- If it is unconstitutional, it should not be signed into law.
- If it is constitutional, then the Constitution should be amended, because it is indisputable that this Bill discriminates on the ground of religion.
We have also written to the Irish Human Rights Commission to ask them to examine the Bill from a human rights perspective, with particular reference to Articles 2, 18 & 26 of the the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Articles 9, 10 & 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
TDs who cited concerns raised by Atheist Ireland
- Willie O’Dea referred to the definition of the term ‘secular body’, and predicted that the courts will be exercised in years to come in defining what is secular, ethical or humanist.
- Aengus O Snodaigh said that Atheist Ireland is correct that the Bill discriminates against non-religious organisations. He also had concerns about the definition of ‘secular body’. He pointed out that even the Humanist Association of Ireland might not satisfy the definition in the Bill. He referred to the Atheist Ireland’s intention to challenge the constitutionality of the Bill. He said that his preferred position would be that only State officials can solemnise marriages.
- Emmett Stagg said of Atheist Ireland’s proposals that seeking perfection can often be the enemy of the good. He suggested that the equality and constitutional issues raised by Atheist Ireland can and will be dealt with at the constitutional forum convention.
- In closing the debate on behalf of the Government, Joan Burton said that a concern that she had about the Atheist Ireland submission was that an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas can perform wedding ceremonies. She said this despite the fact that there is nothing in the Atheist Ireland submission that remotely suggests that we are proposing this. She said that the reason why secular bodies are required to fulfill more criteria than religious bodies was that the authority to solemnise marriage should only be granted only to stable, long-standing and reputable organisations.
Willie O’Dea referred to the definition of the term ‘secular body’, and predicted that the courts will be exercised in years to come in defining what is secular, ethical or humanist.
“The term “secular body” has been widely defined in section 3. It must be an organised group of not fewer than 50 people, its objects must be “secular, ethical and humanist”, its members must meet regularly, it must be in existence for at least five years and it must have a charitable tax status exemption of at least five years standing. To clarify further, the section goes on to indicate which bodies are definitely not regarded as secular bodies for the purposes of solemnising marriage, for example and unsurprisingly, chambers of commerce, political organisations, trade unions, sporting organisations and organisations that promote terrorism or carry out activities that are unlawful or contrary to public policy or morality. Despite this fairly extensive definition, there remains room for argument as to what is meant exactly. In the years to come, the courts will be exercised trying to establish facts under this section, particularly in terms of the objects that bodies must have, for example, what is secular, ethical or humanist.”
Aengus O Snodaigh
Aengus O Snodaigh said that Atheist Ireland is correct that the Bill discriminates against non-religious organisations.
“Atheist Ireland is correct in its assertion that the Bill, because of the criteria contained in section 3, discriminates against non-religious organisations and continues an existing discrimination between the religious and the non-religious. A religious body which has a deity is fine and will get in one door. However, other organisations must jump through a number of other hoops, such as to have 50 members, be five years in existence and be carrying out the practice for five years before being recognised. The group has a point but if it so believes, it will have to go to the Four Goldmines, as Phoenix magazine calls it. There might be problems in the future and people might be inclined to take that route if they feel discriminated against.”
He also had concerns about the definition of ‘secular body’. He pointed out that even the Humanist Association of Ireland might not satisfy the definition in the Bill.
“The definition of “secular body” in section 3 goes on to articulate a long list of types of bodies that are not secular. The problem is that many of these would, in fact, be deemed secular according to most people’s understanding of the word, including, for example, trade unions and bodies which promote political causes. Here again is a certain vagueness in that the concept of “political causes” is not defined.
The Humanist Association of Ireland will be one of the main beneficiaries of the provisions in this Bill, which is welcome, but a quick perusal of its website suggests that even this organisation might not satisfy the definition of “secular body” as contained in section 3, with specific reference to the exclusion of any body promoting a political cause.
Its home page, for example, has a campaigns section, one of which is aimed at lobbying politicians to amend the principal Act. Ironically, that very activity could be seen to exclude the organisation under the definition set out in section 3 of the Bill. The content of the website is inherently political, including, for instance, a cheap shot at politicians in respect of holiday entitlements. There is also an inference that Fianna Fáil is bad and the Labour Party good. In fact, Senator Ivana Bacik is described as the perfect combination of lawyer, Senator and atheist. It is fine to express such views but they are undoubtedly political.”
He referred to Atheist Ireland’s point about the exclusions in the Bill being selectively taken from the Charities Act:
“Another point made by Atheist Ireland is that the provision relating to the excluded bodies is taken virtually en bloc from the Charities Act 2009. However, it ends in this Bill with the phrase “a body that promotes a political cause”. In the Charities Act, and this Bill is similar in some ways because the same type of rules apply, it is defined as a body that promotes a political cause but continues “unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the charitable purpose of that body”.
If that part had been left in it would have allowed the humanists to do exactly what I pointed out earlier, because it is directly related to the advancement of the charitable purposes of the body. The charitable purpose of a secular group is to promote its ideals while the charitable purpose of a religious organisation is to promote its religion, and that might involve a political cause.
In fact, if the Catholic Church was not on the list and had to apply, it might fall foul of that provision because it is promoting political causes in some ways or is promoting causes which are contrary to public policy. We heard the bishops during the week, for example, saying they are opposed to the Government’s announcement. That would be contrary to public policy.”
He referred to the Atheist Ireland’s intention to challenge the constitutionality of the Bill:
“My point is that once these types of restrictions are included in legislation, there is the possibility that some of the bodies intended to benefit from its provisions will be excluded. Atheist Ireland has made the pertinent observation that not all atheists or secularists are humanists. By limiting the definition of a secular body to humanists, many equivalently legitimate and credible secular organisations are potentially excluded from the entitlements provided by the Bill. Indeed, Atheist Ireland has indicated its intention to challenge the constitutionality of the Bill on that basis. Not many groups made submissions or lobbied in regard to these proposals, which was rather strange, but Atheist Ireland was one of those that did. In its submission it stated:
‘We welcome the intention of this Bill to make our law more inclusive. However, in practice the Bill accepts and further institutionalises discrimination on the ground of religion or belief. It continues the discrimination in the Act that it is amending, which is discrimination in favour of religious people and against nonreligious people, and it adds new discrimination, this time between nonreligious people who have different philosophical and non-confessional beliefs.’
The organisation submitted a list of proposals for improving the Bill, some of which I intend to table as amendments. Others of its proposals require a closer consideration as to whether they should be dealt with in the format suggested…
Atheist Ireland has said it intends to lobby the President to prevent this legislation becoming law because in its view it contravenes a number of UN Conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Constitution. It is in that organisation’s gift to take that challenge, because this legislation is likely to be passed.”
He said that his preferred position would be that only State officials can solemnise marriages.
“Giving the power to solemnise the legal contract of marriage to bodies outside the State’s infrastructure, be they religious or not, opens the State to endless and unsolvable problems which could end up in court. I do not think any legal definition can fairly answer the question, so it would have been better not to have opened up this can of worms. My preference is to move to a position where State officials are the only people who can solemnise the marriage contract. Religious services and organisations can carry out their own solemnisation of their religious contract, which is a separate contract… if marriage solemnisers were restricted to being accountable registrars employed by the State under the Ard-Chláraitheoir, it would be a better system. We would have a more secular society which would be more akin to a republic where everybody has equal status.”
Emmett Stagg said of Atheist Ireland’s proposals that seeking perfection can often be the enemy of the good. He suggested that the equality and constitutional issues raised by Atheist Ireland can and will be dealt with at the constitutional forum convention.
“I wish to acknowledge that I have received correspondence from Mr. Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland, pointing out how the Bill could be improved to be more constitutionally sound. I appreciate the points made but would suggest the simple objective in this case, to add the Humanist Association of Ireland to the list of those who can perform legal marriage ceremonies in Ireland, is met by the Bill as it stands. I warn against looking for perfect, which is often the enemy of good. The other equality and constitutional issues raised by Mr. Nugent can and will be dealt with on a future occasion and, in particular, at the constitutional forum convention.”
In closing the debate on behalf of the Government, Joan Burton said that a concern that she had about the Atheist Ireland submission was that an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas can perform wedding ceremonies. She said this despite the fact that there is nothing in the Atheist Ireland submission that remotely suggests that we are proposing this.
“Another concern I had about some of the material in the submission from Atheist Ireland is that we must be specific about the criteria because there are places in the United States where the criteria for solemnising are very broad and, as a result, an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas can perform wedding ceremonies. None of us wants anything like that here. There is all-party agreement on that point.”
She said that the reason why secular bodies are required to fulfil more criteria than religious bodies was that the authority to solemnise marriage should only be granted only to stable, long-standing and reputable organisations.
“The question was asked why secular bodies are required to fulfil more criteria than religious bodies. The purpose of the Bill is to amend the provisions of the Civil Registration Act 2004 and the Bill sets out criteria that secular bodies must meet so they can apply to have their members included on the Register of Solemnisers. The inclusion of secular bodies on the register has not been addressed previously and the legislation is designed to ensure the institution of marriage is protected by applying a rigorous set of rules regarding the type of body that can be deemed eligible. In this regard, it is important that the criteria should be robust so that the authority to solemnise marriage would be granted only to stable, long-standing and reputable organisations.”