Humanist celebrants should reconsider harming the cause of secularism in Ireland

Several accredited humanist celebrants of the Humanist Association of Ireland have written a letter to all members of the Association. They are urging members to attend next week’s EGM because they say “the future of the HAI is at stake.” This concern is exaggerated. Whatever happens next week, the HAI will continue to exist. What is actually at stake is how much harm will be done to the decades-long campaign for separation of church and state in Ireland.

Next week’s EGM will be asked to reaffirm the HAI’s commitment to the values of equality and nondiscrimination and the political cause of secularism, to reject the Civil Registration Act as discriminatory and to cease nominating solemnisers under the Act, and to ensure that people who are making personal profits by virtue of being accredited HAI celebrants are not also on the board of the HAI and voting on how the scheme is run.

The humanist celebrants are good people, providing a good service. But they have an unavoidable conflict of interest (mostly emotional, and partly financial) that is clouding their judgment as to the harm they are doing to the cause of Irish secularism. Their letter also undermines the sense of ethical integrity that brought many of us to humanism, and reflects instead the ‘nod and a wink’ Ireland that many of us are trying to get away from.

Here are the assertions made in the ‘Simply Put’ section of the celebrants’ letter, and the actual situation with regard to each of these assertions.

[From the letter] Political Cause: The HAI does not have a political cause. It uses a political process to advance its campaign for equality and social justice.

This is simply not true. The core of understanding this issue is recognising the starting point that the HAI does in fact promote the political cause of separation of church and state, and that this is a valid and good cause to promote. The letter from the celebrants creates the impression that this is not the case. It implies that the HAI has not been involved in promoting a political cause, and that those seeking the EGM are trying the change the status quo. In fact, the opposite is the case.

Firstly, the HAI does promote a political cause. The HAI website states explicitly that the HAI campaigns for “ultimately the total separation of church from state.” The HAI has published a policy document seeking changes in the Irish Constitution, laws and practices of the state. The HAI is a partner in the structured dialogue process between the Irish government and religious and nonreligious philosophical bodies. The HAI supports legislation to permit and regulate abortion.

Secondly, the celebrants’ position is based on the argument that “having a political cause” is not listed in the objects of the company that the HAI is structured as. But the clause in the Civil Registration Act is about the behaviour of the body, not about its objects. The wording is “promote a political cause,” not “have a political cause”. And that phrase has its origin in Dail debates as legal advice that the government had received in order to prevent political lobbying.

Thirdly, it is embarrassing that we are being asked to endorse a statement that not even its proponents could credibly believe: that “using a political process to advance a campaign for equality and social justice” is somehow not promoting a political cause. If a religion or a politician made this argument while opposing the aims of the HAI, we would be more inclined to dismiss it with laughter than to argue against it.

If celebrants want to argue that the HAI should cease promoting the political cause of secularism, in order to be able to solemnise marriages, then by all means they should make that argument. We can discuss the pros and cons, and come to a conclusion. But please do not drag us into another “Irish solution to an Irish problem” debate, where everybody pretends that neither the HAI nor the law actually mean what they say.

[From the letter] Discrimination: The discrimination of not allowing legal Humanist weddings has righted by the passing of this amendment which allows for them.

But is the bill itself is not discriminatory? The bill is more onerous on secular bodies than religious bodies. But it would have been naive to think that it could have been otherwise. The intent was to allow only those bodies deemed suitable to be allowed to solemnise marriages. And we must remember that all we ever looked for was to have legal status for Humanist wedding ceremonies.

Even the Irish Government accepts that this law discriminates on the ground of religion or belief. The Government seeks to justify the discrimination with implausible arguments, none of which are necessary to protect the human right to practice freedom of religion or belief, and none of which reflect a proportionate relationship between the aim that the Government describes (protecting the institution of marriage) and the means it is employing to pursue that aim (discriminating against nonreligious citizens).

You can legally solemnise marriages in Ireland if you are a psychic medium, tarot card reader, public entertainer, ghost whisperer or ghost buster (Ministers of the Spiritualist Union of Ireland); or if you oversee a culture of covering up child sex abuse, or lie to and positively mislead a state inquiry into child sex abuse, or swear victims of child sex abuse to silence (Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church); or if you default on six-figure debts, or fail to file income tax returns (Pastors of the Abundant Life Christian Centre and Victory Christian Church).

Any religious body can nominate its members to legally solemnise marriages in Ireland, but secular groups like Atheist Ireland can not, because the new law discriminates on the ground of religion. Secular bodies must have fifty members, must be five years in existence, must be on the charitable tax exemption list for five years, and must not promote a political cause. This is supposedly to ensure that secular bodies are ‘stable, longstanding and reputable’, while the only criteria for religious bodies is that they meet regularly for common religious worship.

It is not correct to argue that “all [the HAI] ever looked for was to have legal status for Humanist wedding ceremonies.” The HAI has campaigned for this as part of a wider political campaign for a secular state. Being allowed to take part in the discriminatory system, at the cost of legally denying that we promote separation of church and state, is not the context in which we campaigned for legal status for humanist weddings.

[From the letter] Why Not Everyone? An example of an organisation that would not be deemed suitable for solemnising marriages is the IRA. They would be prohibited as they clearly have a political cause.

This is an uninformed argument. The IRA would of course be prohibited from solemnising marriages, but it would not be because they have a political cause.

The IRA would be prohibited from solemnising marriages because the IRA is a criminal organisation that is prohibited from existing, never mind solemnising marriages. The IRA would also be prohibited from solemnising marriages because the Act prohibits: “(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.”

And if the IRA was to respond to this by using the tactics that the HAI is currently using (by arguing that the constitution of the IRA does not specifically say that the IRA promotes terrorism or terrorist activities, therefore the IRA does not promote terrorism and terrorist activities) most HAI members would correctly dismiss such a transparently dishonest semantic manoeuvre.

[From the letter] Democratic System: This amendment was passed by the Senate and the Dail and signed into law by our President; and all of this despite calls from Atheist Ireland to stop it. It was made very clear that, despite some people’s interpretation of it, the clear intent and spirit of the bill was to allow for legal Humanist weddings.

This is an extraordinary argument. Both Atheist Ireland and the HAI consistently campaign against Acts that were passed by the Senate and the Dail and signed into law by our President. Indeed, both Atheist Ireland and the HAI consistently campaign against clauses in the Irish constitution that were passed by the people of Ireland collectively.

It is extraordinary to imply that these injustices are vindicated by the fact that we have not yet succeeded in bringing about these changes. Can you imagine how the HAI would have reacted if anyone had responded to our campaign to remove the religious oaths required of judges and the President, by saying that these requirements were put in place as a result of the democratic system?

[From the letter] Profit and Gain: under the principal act a solemniser can have his/her registration cancelled if he/she “for profit again has carried on a business of solemnising marriages”. Humanist celebrants have for years been assisting couples plan their ceremonies and conducting them on the day. Fees have been charged for this to cover the time and expense involved. No further charge will be made for the solemnising of marriages.

Humanist celebrants are providing a private commercial service, as private individuals, and are making private personal profits. They charge €450 for each humanist wedding they conduct, out of which they contribute €50 to the HAI, pay their travel and other expenses, and keep the remainder as profit.

The HAI does not either set or publish these prices, because it has been legally advised that it should keep an arms-length distance from the celebrants, so that the HAI does not seem to be legally liable for the behaviour of the celebrants.

The celebrants act as self-employed businesspeople, either full-time or part-time. The Director of Ceremonies has told an RTE radio programme that his employment status on his tax return is listed as ‘Humanist Celebrant’. Conducting ceremonies is his full-time source of income. For other HAI celebrants it is a part-time source of income.

The celebrants’ letter is contending that solemnisers will not be carrying on a business of solemnising marriages for profit or gain, on the grounds that they will not be charging anything extra for the solemnising than they had previously been charging for the ceremony.

Like several other of the celebrants’ claims, this is simply playing with words. If a service is being offered and sold for profit or gain, and the essence of that service is that the couples paying for it become legally married as a result of the service, then a business of solemnising marriages is being carried on for profit or gain.

Indeed, the whole thrust of the campaign to become marriage solemnisers is that it confers a legitimacy and a convenience that will make more people want to avail of the new ‘legally married’ service, than currently avail of the non-binding service.

For example, the HAI says that there is currently a waiting list of between five and six hundred couples waiting for humanist solemnisers to be registered in order to have a legal humanist wedding. But why would these couples be waiting, if the solemnising was not part of what they will be paying for?

As an aside, a waiting list of more than five hundred couples represents a collective private income for individual businesspeople of up to €250,000, with effectively no independent oversight (and that is merely the money estimated to be generated by the currently stated waiting list).

Having the HAI as the only secular nominating body for solemnisers would in effect establish a state-approved private business monopoly, generating annual income in the hundreds of thousands of euros, for the provision of legal secular marriages outside of business hours. This is undemocratic and undesirable.

[From the letter] Complaints Procedure: Ivana Bacik has said that those who are not happy with the legislation should talk to their public representatives to get it changed.

Talking to public representatives to get legislation changed is by definition promoting a political cause. No amount of Jesuitical semantics can change that. The HAI should, of course, try to get this legislation changed as part of our ongoing political campaign for, ultimately, total separation of church and state.

[From the letter] Changing Ireland: The growing demand for humanist marriage ceremonies reflects a changing Ireland which the HAI endeavours to serve. Couples enquiring about the legal status of our ceremonies are baffled by the drive by some to frustrate and scupper the long-fought-for legislation. As one bride recently put it: “is this not cutting off your nose to spite your face?”

This entire paragraph would be more appropriately applied to the campaign for secularism in Ireland. The growing demand for separation of church and state reflects the changing Ireland that the HAI should be endeavouring to serve. Longtime members of the HAI, including former and current officers of the Association, are baffled by the drive of some to (unwittingly) frustrate this long-fought-for campaign. It is betraying the political cause of secularism in order to solemnise marriages that would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. Let us make sure that we do not do this.

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7 Comments

  1. Great rebuff Michael. Could you please tell me whether churches also have comply with the “not having a political agenda” stipulation or is that little gem only reserved for secular bodies. We should be screaming this from the rooftops if it is the case. And shame on the writers of that letter for fudging the issue in the way they have.

  2. Whatever way one chooses to describe the aspirations of HAI, whether political, civil, social or cultural, the last thing we should want is a head-to-head confrontation within HAI over the Association’s interpretation and application of the flawed Civil Registration (Amendment) Act. Even less should we go down the road of open conflict between HAI and Atheist Ireland.

    As a long-standing member of HAI, I have never regarded the Association as a political body. I see it as a community organisation dedicated to bringing like-minded thinkers together for the promotion of Humanism and the pursuit of common aims.

    Regrettably, because of holidays, I shall be unable to attend the EGM and I am grateful to Atheist Ireland for allowing me this opportunity to express my views.

    I could pick holes in the letter I received from the celebrants; but I won’t. The truth is that the conflict that has emerged over the acceptance of the Act by the Committee cannot be “simply put”. It is not about a two-side battle that can be resolved by a pros and cons debate leading to a show of hands at a single meeting. The dispute is multifaceted, as the celebrant’s letter and Michael’s rebuttal prove. I foresee that if is not resolved with a conflict resolution or Alternative Dispute Resolution approach, it runs the risk of provoking the disastrous outcome that itself is even the subject of disagreement.

    I appeal to all sides to calm down and to the movers of the EGM motions to remit them to the Committee, without being put to the members present, for the express purpose of initiating a suitable process of dispute resolution.

  3. Correction:
    I erroneously thanked Atheist Ireland for the opportunity to express my views. I should have thanked Michael himself as these comments are appearing on his personal website. Could I have subconsciously concluded that Atheist Ireland and Michael Nugent are synonymous?

  4. I am appalled by all of this in-fighting.
    How can any cause be forwarded in this way?
    The motto, ” united we stand, divided we fall” was never more apt.
    Those who have called for the EGM are a bunch of trouble-makers with nothing to offer society but their own brand of militant atheism. That is not what humanism stands for. I would liken what is happening here as similar to the infiltration of The Civil Rights Movement in N.I. by IRA/SinnFein.

  5. Jennifer, I will be charitable and assume that you do not know who has called for the EGM. They include, among others, Catherine O’Brien and Muiris O Conchuir, who I know you will be aware of from their long years of work as officers of the HAI.

    Also, as someone who spent many years campaigning against the IRA, I don’t appreciate being compared to murdering terrorists because I am defending the longstanding policies of the HAI to promote secularism in Ireland.

    We have consistently tried to address these issues constructively, but the board has responded by closing down every opportunity for discussion until an EGM was the only option available to do so.

  6. Yes, Jennifer myself and the members who oppose the Civil Registration Amendments Act are exactly like the IRA in the early days of the troubles. The way they were known for wanting to have open discussion and debate and the resolution of disputes through a democratic process. And wasn’t the Civil Rights movement about equality and opposing discrimination?

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