Secular marriage bill passes Irish Senate, but must be amended for equality

The Irish Senate yesterday passed a Bill enabling secular bodies to nominate people who can legally solemnize marriages. Currently only the State or a religious body can do this. The Humanist Association of Ireland has for years nominated people who can conduct marriage ceremonies, but such marriages also have to be legally solemnized by the State.

The Bill could be a significant step forward for secularism in Ireland, but it has three important flaws that must be amended if it is to serve its intended purpose.

  1. The definition of ‘secular body’ should be amended to define ‘secular’ objectively, and to include secular bodies that are not humanist;
  2. Secular bodies and religious bodies should be treated equally in terms of restrictions when nominating people to solemnize marriages;
  3. The restriction on secular bodies promoting political causes should be qualified to match the wording in the Charities Act 2009.

Please lobby your TD immediately to let them know about the need for these important changes. It will be debated in the Dail very soon, and it may be inaccurately presented there as providing equality between religious and nonreligious bodies.

1. The definition of ‘secular body’ should be amended

The definition of ‘secular body’ should be amended to define ‘secular’ objectively, and to include secular bodies that are not principally humanist.

45A(1) For the purposes of this Part, a body shall… be a secular body if it is an organized group of people and
(a) has not fewer than 50 members;
(b) its principal objects are secular, ethical and humanist;
(c) members of the body meet in relation to their beliefs and in furtherance of the objects referred to in Section (b);
(d)-(h)….

The difficulty here is Section (b): a body shall only be considered a secular body if “its principal objects are secular, ethical and humanist.” Secularism should never be defined in a way that necessitates allegiance to any particular version of a philosophical non-confessional belief system. This definition prevents secular bodies whose principal objects are not humanist from applying to nominate people to solemnize marriages.

For example, while Atheist Ireland is not seeking to nominate people to solemnize marriages, we could not support a Bill that would prevent us from having that option. Indeed, in principle, this Bill would prevent a purely secular body, whose objects stressed the philosophical neutrality of secularism, from being defined as a secular body.


This in turn subverts the stated purpose of the Bill, which is to extend marriage solemnizing not only to humanist bodies, but to any secular bodies that fulfill the other criteria in the Bill. It also subverts the ideal of political secularism, which is that a secular State is neutral between religious and nonreligious philosophical beliefs.

Proposal for Amendment:

Define a secular body as the European Union does: “A body shall be a secular body if… its principal objects are philosophical and non-confessional.”

2. Secular bodies and religious bodies should be treated equally

Secular bodies and religious bodies should be treated equally in terms of restrictions when nominating people to solemnize marriages.

The principal Act is the Civil Registrations Act 2004. This defines “a religious body” as “an organised group of people, members of which meet regularly for common religious worship.”

To parallel this, the New Bill should describe “a secular body” simply as “an organised group of people, members of which meet regularly to further secular aims.” Instead, the current Bill places a lot more restrictions on secular bodies that are not placed on religious bodies.

Putting aside the flawed definition of secularism, as outlined earlier, this Bill imposes the following restrictions on secular bodies that are not imposed on religious bodies:
(a) Must have not fewer than 50 members
(b) Must have specified principal objects
(f) Must have been in existence for at least five years
(g) Must have had tax exemption for at least five years

These restrictions should be imposed on both religious and secular bodies alike, or else they should not be imposed on either.

The Bill also describes obvious qualifications for secular bodies that the Principal Act does not describe for religious bodies:
(d) Must not have marriage rules that contravene the law
(e) Must have appropriate procedures for training and accrediting

If these obvious qualifications need to be explicitly stated, they should be stated for religious bodies and secular bodies alike.

Proposal for Amendment:

Either remove these discriminatory restrictions from secular bodies, or else have them apply equally to religious bodies and secular bodies alike.

3. The restriction on promoting political causes should be qualified

The restriction on secular bodies promoting political causes should be qualified to match the wording in the Charities Act 2009.

45A(2) None of the following is a secular body for the purposes of this part:
(a) a political party, or a body that promotes a political party or candidate,
(b) a body that promotes a political cause,
(c) an approved body of persons within the meaning of section 235 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997,
(d) a trade union or a representative body of employers,
(e) a chamber of commerce, or
(f) a body that promotes purposes that are—(i) unlawful, (ii) contrary to public morality, (iii) contrary to public policy, (iv) in support of terrorism or terrorist activities, whether in the State or outside the State, or (v) for the benefit of an organisation, membership of which is unlawful;

The difficulty here is Section (b): a body that promotes a political cause is excluded from the definition of a secular body.

The Humanist Association of Ireland, which is the primary body likely to apply in the first instance under the Bill, does promote a political cause. The Humanist Association of Ireland promotes separation of church and state.

Indeed, it would be extraordinary to find a secular body anywhere that does not promote the political cause of separation of church and state.

Furthermore, this exclusion seems to be a deliberate choice.

The entire wording of the Section of exclusions is transcribed, word for word, from the definition of “excluded body” in the Charities Act 2009, with just one difference.

The Charities Act qualifies “(b) a body that promotes a political cause,” by saying “(b) a body that promotes a political cause, unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the charitable purposes of the body,”

There is no reason why this Bill should remove that qualification from the definitions that it has transcribed from the Charities Act.

Proposal for Amendment:

Amend 45A(2) to read: “None of the following is a secular body for the purposes of this part… (b) a body that promotes a political cause, unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the secular purposes of the body,”

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

  1. It would be much simpler to totally seperate Church & State, ie. the state does not recognize any religous marriages, only secular state marriage (does not even have to be called ‘marriage’). Past religious marriages already recognised could be automatically noted/added as ‘official state marriage’ to avoid people having to ‘remarry’…

  2. Agree with Mark Perkins above, though with some differences. The aim should be to end the notion of having organisations, religious or secular, from nominating people to conduct marriage ceremonies. Either the state should be the sole entity responsible for solemnizing marriages (e.g. as in France), or all citizens should be allowed to apply for solemnizing powers (e.g. as in some (all?) parts of the USA) as long as they’ve undertaken appropriate training and have passed exams and vetting requirements. The latter solution would be easier to pass as it would still allow religious representatives to have solemnizing powers.

  3. The point is not to

    “end the notion of having organisations, religious or secular, from nominating people to conduct marriage ceremonies”

    but to end the notion of having the state recognize marriages performed by others (the case in France). A state recognized marriage has legal consequences, such as inheritance, divorce, responsibility for children, etc which should not be mixed with marriages performed by others. Could even be called something different than marriage, to distinguish from other, non state ceremonies/contracts.

    Allowing religious authorities to perform state recognized marriages does not lead to seperation of church & state but its reinforcement (the situation in USA).

  4. If ‘civil registration’ confers the same legal rights / obligations as ‘marriage’ , then the answer is simple – the state gets out of the business of marriage, refuses to recognise future marriages and ‘civil registration’ of past marriages…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *