Thursday, 10 November 2011
Seanad Éireann Debate
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, to the House and thank her in advance for her support for this Bill. I also thank members of the Humanist Association of Ireland who are in the Visitors Gallery, in particular, Professor David McConnell, the president of the association, and Mr. Brian Whiteside, who gave great assistance in the preparation of this Bill. It is a proud week for humanism in Ireland. Tomorrow, the presidential inauguration in Dublin Castle will for the first time incorporate a humanist element alongside the traditional religious elements of the ceremony. I believe this amounts to formal recognition of the vital role humanism plays alongside religion and religions as representing an ethical set of values for people throughout Ireland.
I am delighted to propose this Bill to the House on behalf of the Labour Party Senators. I am very grateful to my colleagues on the other side of the House for their indications that it will receive cross-party support, certainly in principle. I know the Sinn Féin Senators are supporting it. Senator Mooney, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Senators, may have a difficulty with an aspect of the drafting of the Bill, which I will address but I think he is supportive of the Bill in principle.
Essentially, the key impact of this technical amending Bill, which seeks to amend the Civil Registration Act 2004, will be to enable members of the Humanist Association of Ireland to be entitled to perform legal civil wedding ceremonies. In other words, if the Bill is passed, for the first time humanists will be able to perform marriages in Ireland legally. This may sound like a small change. It is not a particularly radical proposal. I am conscious that this is a time of great economic crisis, difficulty and financial hardship for many people in this country. In that context, it may be seen as a somewhat trivial matter to seek to legislate on during Private Members’ time.
Although the Bill is technical, I suggest it is far from trivial for two reasons. First, it will have a significant positive impact on the quality of life of individuals and couples who wish to celebrate their marriage in a humanist ceremony. At present, they cannot celebrate their marriage legally through a humanist ceremony. Second, this change would be in keeping with the traditional role of the Seanad as a forum for bringing forward progressive social reforms. I am proud that this Bill is a creature of the Seanad. It will illustrate how appropriate a legislative forum the Seanad is for having debates on key changes in our society.
This legislation represents a way for us to accommodate difference in our laws. It allows us to show that we are inclusive of those who do not share the faith of the majority and that we respect their values and belief systems just as we respect those of the many people and families who are members of established religions and churches. A young man e-mailed me earlier this week to say this Bill represents another step in the process of making Ireland a more inclusive and pluralist society. The Seanad has played a vital role as the forum where many steps of this nature have been taken in the past. Senator O’Keeffe will describe this in more detail when she seconds this Bill.
I wish to speak about the substance of the Bill and explain its context. I reiterate that it is a short Bill. It seeks to amend three sections of the Civil Registration Act 2004, which regulates the registration of civil marriages. The 2004 Act, among other things, provides for the establishment of a register of solemnisers — those who can legally conduct marriages — and makes provision for a choice of venue for civil marriages. The category of people who may be registered as solemnisers is limited by the current version of section 54(1) of the 2004 Act, which provides that HSE registrars and members of religious bodies are the only people who may celebrate legal marriages. Section 45 of the Act defines a “religious body” as “an organised group of people members of which meet regularly for common religious worship”.
The majority of registered solemnisers are members of the well known churches — the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and so on. The definition I have mentioned covers organisations such as Pagan Federation Ireland and the Spiritualist Union of Ireland. As they have applied for and obtained registration under the Act, their individual members may seek to be entered on the register of solemnisers. Although the definition is relatively broad, it excludes members of the Humanist Association of Ireland, who routinely conduct humanist funeral, naming and wedding ceremonies. This is somewhat anomalous, given the status of the association and the established nature of humanism, about which I will say more in a moment. Although the humanists are an organised group and meet regularly, they do not engage in religious worship and are therefore not covered under the definition. The Bill before the House seeks to address the anomaly whereby only HSE registrars or members of religious bodies may seek to be registered as solemnisers of marriages. It does this by inserting a new, extended definition of “body” in section 45 of the 2004 Act.
Under my proposal, “body” will be defined as “an authority [that reference is to the HSE] or a religious body or a body designated by the Minister”. This would confer power on the Minister to designate bodies like the Humanist Association of Ireland — I do not anticipate or envisage that other bodies will seek such designation — as being capable of applying to have their members registered as celebrants of legal marriages. If this amendment is accepted, the chief registrar will continue to have the power to assess the suitability of individual members of any “body”, including the Humanist Association of Ireland, which may be designated by the Minister.
When I was drafting this Bill, I initially proposed, as an alternative to delegating power to the Minister, that section 45 should name the Humanist Association of Ireland and define “body” as “an authority or a religious body or the Humanist Association of Ireland”. That would have been a more straightforward and simpler way of framing the legislation. It would have meant that bodies other than the Humanist Association of Ireland would not be entitled to apply. It would have overcome the difficulty of delegating a power to the Minister that perhaps should be retained by the Oireachtas. I have had a conversation with Senator Mooney about this drafting issue. I have been advised that naming an organisation in the section might create problems. On that basis, the draft was changed to provide that the Minister could designate a body. On Committee Stage, perhaps we can consider whether a better approach to the designation of bodies can be arrived at. Perhaps it would be best to name the Humanist Association of Ireland in this legislation. I have a very open mind on this. I assure Senators that this drafting point can be dealt with on Committee Stage.
An alternative approach would involve allowing the chief registrar to designate a body, rather than delegating that power to the Minister, while retaining the power of appeal to the Minister in the event that the chief registrar refuses to designate a body. That might be a good approach to take. Perhaps some people might take issue with the delegation of such an important power below the level of Minister. Regardless of the method of drafting that is used — I am fairly agnostic on the matter, if I can use that phrase — it is important to emphasise that in any event, the chief registrar will retain the final filtering power to assess the suitability of the individual members of any body. Perhaps this can be considered on Committee Stage. I look forward to that debate and to hearing the Minister’s view on this issue.
I would like to explain why the Humanist Association of Ireland should be entitled to have its members registered as solemnisers of marriage. I have admired the work of the association for a long time. I have an association with it, although I do not think I am a member of it. I broadly agree with the ethical values of humanism. More important, I have attended humanist wedding and funeral ceremonies and have been greatly impressed by the dignity with which they are conducted. Humanism is an ethical philosophy of life, based on a concern for humanity that combines reason with compassion. Many people in Ireland, including me, would broadly describe themselves as having a humanist philosophy, regardless of whether they are members of the association.
The Humanist Association of Ireland evolved in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It is a non-profit company, limited by guarantee without share capital. It has registered charitable status. It is affiliated to the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the European Humanist Federation. I understand that the association has approximately 500 members. In addition, humanists have become something of a voice for the non-religious in Ireland. According to the most recent CSO figures, the non-religious constitute the largest group after Roman Catholics. There are more non-religious than there are members of the Church of Ireland.
Humanists will be included in tomorrow’s formal presidential inauguration celebration. They have been included in official State forums on various aspects of social policy for some time.  They are represented on the national forum on patronage and pluralism in primary education, which is due to meet in November and to report in December. The Humanist Association of Ireland holds monthly meetings in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. It co-hosts a summer school with the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland. It provides a community for like-minded people and conducts humanist naming, wedding and funeral ceremonies for those who wish to celebrate these milestones in a personal, meaningful but non-religious way.
It is important to point out that humanist wedding ceremonies already have legal status in Scotland, Australia since 1972 and a number of Scandinavian countries. The number of humanist wedding ceremonies in Ireland is growing every year, even though they currently have no legal status. Couples go to the HSE registrar to have their marriage registered legally before having a separate ceremony conducted by a humanist celebrant. Approximately 130 non-legal humanist wedding ceremonies were celebrated in this country last year. Over 150 such ceremonies are likely to be celebrated by the end of this year.
I have been informed by the Humanist Association of Ireland that it has ten accredited celebrants who perform humanist ceremonies. It has a rigorous accreditation process through which potential celebrants must go before they are accredited. For example, applicants must prove to the board of the association that they satisfy the ten required attributes for accreditation, including having a humanist outlook and a compassionate nature. They are judged on appearance, articulation and organisational skills, etc. A relatively rigorous process must be undergone by aspiring celebrants.
I would like to conclude by speaking about the other important context for this Bill, to which Senator O’Keeffe will refer in more detail. The number of couples who wish to celebrate their marriages in Ireland in a non-religious manner is growing. The proportion of couples choosing a non-religious civil wedding ceremony has grown rapidly in Ireland from 6% in 1996 to more than 23% in 2006. The 2011 census figures have not yet been published, so we have not seen them. However, the CSO has projected that next year for the first time, the number of non-religious ceremonies may exceed the number of religious ceremonies. Again, it is a matter of seeking to accommodate what is a growing minority which wishes to celebrate marriage in a non-religious manner.
It is vital this Bill receives support and I hope it will get cross-party support. Given the status of the Humanist Association of Ireland and of Humanism in Ireland, the growing level of support for non-religious wedding ceremonies and the need to ensure our laws are inclusive and reflective of an increasingly pluralist society, I urge colleagues on both sides of the House to support this Bill, which has been put forward by the Labour Party. I commend the Bill to the House.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: I welcome the Minister and the members of the Humanist Association of Ireland who have joined us today. I am delighted to welcome this Bill to amend the Civil Registration Act 2004, the Act that regulates the registration of civil marriages. As my colleague, Senator Bacik, indicated, the figures reveal very clearly that an increasing number of people are seeking a non-religious or civil wedding ceremony. The figures have increased quite dramatically and although they relate only to 2006, it is clear that trend is rising, as are the recent CSO figures of people stating “no faith” when asked about religious beliefs.
As legislators, it is our task, in part, to reflect the changes in society and to respond to them. Where there are groups of people whose habits and needs are changing, it is for us, in this House, to try to find ways to accommodate them.
The Seanad has a long tradition as a forum for bringing forward progressive social reforms. Many Senators, including well known Senators, such as former Senators Mary Robinson and Mary Henry, and Senator Norris have used the Seanad as a forum to express progressive views that might not have received an airing otherwise in the Oireachtas. Mary Robinson, in particular, used the Seanad as a forum to bring forward legislation on contraception in the 1970s and divorce in the 1980s. It seems strange in 2011 to remember those times when those were difficult issues. The debates on the Private Members’ Bills that she proposed on these issues played an important part in changing public opinion on what were contentious matters. Ultimately, the Seanad debates paved the way for later legalisation on both contraception and divorce.
During her time as a Senator, Mary Henry, brought forward Private Members’ legislation on the regulation of IVF and assisted human reproduction and her work on developing mental capacity legislation was hugely important. Similarly, the concept of civil partnership and the debate on the need to provide legal recognition for gay couples were first raised in the Seanad by Senator Norris, paving the way for the eventual passage of the Civil Partnership Act in 2010 — in effect, paving the way for equality for our citizens. Climate change legislation was first debated in the Seanad and women’s participation in Parliament was also first debated in this House and, indeed, has not yet specifically been debated in the Dáil. There is a tradition in this House of debating matters which often prove difficult.
Today, we have the opportunity to amend existing legislation and in so doing, to be more inclusive and to build our national capacity for tolerance, fairness and equality. I believe in an inclusive society where we reach out to different communities and include their beliefs.
The argument could and might be made that existing churches or faiths are weakened when this kind of legislation is introduced. I believe existing traditional faiths are strengthened by including the beliefs of others and not weakened because acknowledging and accepting the right and role of other belief systems of whatever kind is a sign of strength, of confidence, of maturity on the part of more mainstream churches, of their respect and of our respect for each other.
It is also a sign that our country is growing up slowly under the shadow of a more traditional past. The “them and us” society, in which many of us grew up in terms of religious belief, was very divisive. It is always divisive when there is a “them and us” as one group always views the other across a divide.
By amending legislation such as this, we grow the “we”— we literally create a greater us and a lesser them and in so doing, we show a respect for the varying and different traditions. That is something we grow each time we change these laws. Each time we do so we acknowledge and include those who share a different faith and we strengthen the pluralist nature of our society and our capacity to share the ceremonies which matter to us all — births, deaths and marriages.
On a more practical note, the registrars operating for the HSE only work Monday to Friday which means that anyone who wants a non-religious civil wedding cannot have a weekend wedding. If they have a non-legally binding commitment ceremony, perhaps with a Humanist solemniser, they then must have an additional legal ceremony during the week. This adds complication not to mention cost to those people who pursue this route. Allowing Humanists and other bodies, which may come forward, to have members registered as celebrants of legal marriage will remove that stress. Those of us who have been involved in marriages know of the stress of organising weddings but this will also reduce the cost.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: While the numbers may be small, Humanist marriage ceremonies enhance the quality of the lives of those involved directly and others indirectly. In the grand scheme of collapsing governments, soaring interest rates and bond crises, we have found time in this House to reach out beyond that vista to remember that people are sustained by their core beliefs, whatever they are. Society’s recognition and acknowledgement of those beliefs matter at this time and we advance that kind understanding in this House today. I welcome this Bill and thank the Minister for coming to the House.
Senator Paschal Mooney: I welcome the Minister and commend Senator Bacik for her initiative. I observed the contrast in the two contributions from the same party. My mind kept going back to the reality of what we are being asked to debate and agree to which is essentially an amendment to existing legislation. It is not necessarily about the wider issues relating to all sorts of inclusivity. I agree fully with the rhetoric in which Senator O’Keeffe indulged. All sides of the House would agree with inclusivity. I would like to think the original framers of this legislation in 2004 were very much taken up by the fact that they wanted it to be as inclusive as possible so much so that, as Senator Bacik pointed out, the pagans and spiritualists were able to obtain licences for solemnising of weddings. It would seem a given that the original framers of the legislation were attempting to be as inclusive as possible.
What we are dealing with here — let us be factual about it — is a legal change, an amendment to the existing legislation. That is where I have the difficulty. Senator Bacik highlighted the difficulty. Her original motives were and remain that one specific organisation be given a licence to solemnise civil marriages. The questions arise as to why Senator Bacik did not draft the legislation to specifically mention the Humanist Association of Ireland and why the Minister did not accept the Humanist Association of Ireland. This is not a problem for this House but for the Government. I would be interested to hear why the Minister would not accede to the original request to include the Humanist Association of Ireland in the legislation. Successive Ministers tend to shy away from adding specific names, institutions or organisations to legislation. I have never understood the logic behind this in some instances and have in others. Despite what Senator O’Keeffe said about other organisations that may wish to apply for licences in this case, the reality is no other organisation wants to. The original legislation took into account the inclusive nature of the matter and, therefore, the issue centres around one organisation. The question remains why the Minister will not add the name of the Humanist Association of Ireland to the legislation.
I am opposing this Bill because I believe it will affect the primacy of Parliament. This Bill will amend the original legislation to specifically take away the right of Parliament to designate bodies in this area, transferring it instead to the line Minister. It will mean the line Minister will have carte blanche to add any organisation or institution he or she wishes. I am not against any organisation that wishes to be added to the list. I am opposed, however, to any diminution of the role of Parliament to scrutinise, debate and amend, where necessary, legislation. If we pass this Bill, we will pass over that power to the line Minister without any recourse to Parliament. I do not wish to diminish the concerns of the Humanist Association of Ireland or Senator Bacik’s motives for introducing this legislation. However, such a transfer of powers in what is essentially a small issue would not be a positive or healthy development.
The legislation in its preferred form should name the association. I do not accept there is any legal bar to naming this association because it has already been made clear that there is no other association involved. If the pagans and spiritualists can get licences, there is hardly any other institution that comes within the scope of the Bill. I must admit I was surprised the pagans were referred to as a religious body but they do worship entities.
My opposition to this legislation is not based on being against any association that may come within the scope of the Bill. It is about the primacy of Parliament and its right to debate issues. Based on my long parliamentary experience, I am reluctant to hand over carte blanche freedom to a Minister to make decision without recourse to Parliament.
Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton): I commend Senator Bacik for her initiative in bringing this Bill before the House. Its purpose is to extend the system of registration of solemnisers of marriage, as provided for in the Civil Registration Act 2004.
Deputy Joan Burton: The Bill’s purpose is to encompass solemnisers of marriage other than those nominated by religious bodies and registrars employed by the Health Service Executive, HSE. The idea is to have a third category of solemniser in addition to civil registrars and members of religious bodies.
The Irish Marriages Acts 1844 to 1972, which pre-dated the Civil Registration Act 2004, contained different procedures for the notification, solemnisation and registration of marriages for religious bodies. There were myriad certificates and licences for marriage depending on the religious body involved and the circumstances in which the marriage was to be had. These procedures were confusing and not readily understood, even by the registrars who were responsible for operating them.
The interdepartmental committee on reform of the marriage laws was established to make recommendations for a universal framework that recognises and underpins marriage as a solemn contract, to streamline procedures and provide consistency and clarity on the formalities to be observed. The committee engaged in widespread public consultation and issued several discussion papers and position papers during 2003. The deliberations of the committee informed the drafting of the marriage provisions of the Civil Registration Act 2004.
The main provisions of the Civil Registration Act relating to marriage provide for common preliminaries and a single set of documentation for all marriages; introduction of the marriage registration form, a single licensing system; establishment of a register of solemnisers; and provision for a choice of venue for civil marriages. Section 51 provides that a marriage may only be legally solemnised by a register solemniser. Section 53 provides for the establishment of a register of solemnisers while section 54 provides that a religious body, or the HSE, may apply to have a member of that religious body or a registrar, respectively, entered in the register.
The matter of the subject of this Private Members’ Bill was considered by the committee following receipt of a submission from the Humanist Association of Ireland which requested its members be approved to officiate at marriages. In its position paper on the subject, the committee recommended that power to solemnise marriages be extended to recognised solemnisers of groups in society not adequately catered for by the procedures then in operation.
In the event, the register of solemnisers was confined to registrars appointed by the HSE and members of religious bodies nominated by them. This position was arrived at by a Minister from Senator Mooney’s party. This is provided for in section 45 which contains the definitions relevant to Part 6, the marriage provisions. In section 45, as amended by the Health Act 2004, a “body” is defined as the HSE or a religious body. A “religious body” is defined as an organised group of people members of which meet regularly for common religious worship.
Deputy Joan Burton: The proposed change to the definitions outlined above would include a body designated by the Minister. As drafted, the proposal does not yet contain criteria by which the Minister would designate a body and, as such, this will have to be addressed as it proceeds through the Oireachtas. It may also be worth examining whether there is a case for the Registrar General to have a role in the designation process. Under the current system, bodies may apply to the Registrar General. If the Registrar General refuses to register a person or cancels an existing registration, the affected person may appeal this decision to the Minister. In the circumstances, it would appear reasonable for the same system to apply.
The proposal to include members of non-religious bodies in the register of solemnisers is one I support. However, in light of the issues I have mentioned, it may be necessary for amendments to be proposed on Committee Stage.
As with Senator Bacik, probably all other Senators and most people in this country, I have attended funeral and wedding ceremonies which were conducted by humanists with great dignity, sensitivity and solemnity, as is the case with other registrars and the various religious persons who are entitled to solemnise weddings. The Humanist Association of Ireland has carried out such ceremonies with the solemnity befitting the great occasions we celebrate to mark particular passages in the life of individuals, families and society, namely, birth, marriage and death. I again commend the Senators who moved the Bill.
Acting Chairman (Senator Paul Coghlan): According to the order agreed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, the running order of speakers will be Senator Zappone followed by Senators Hayden, Norris and Healy Eames.
Senator David Norris: When I raised this point, the Minister noticed I was speaking to the Chair and misunderstood what I was doing. The order appears to be extraordinary. By the time I speak, five speakers from the Government side will have spoken and only one from this side. If Senator Healy Eames speaks before me, six or seven Government speakers will have contributed before anyone from this side speaks, which is a little unbalanced. While I accept this is the order laid down by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, I ask the Acting Chairman to refer the matter to the committee as an anomaly.
Senator Katherine Zappone: I strongly support the legislation and thank Senator Bacik for introducing it and outlining its provisions with her usual and welcome energy and eloquence. She has also done important research. I will make three brief points. Having welcomed the Bill and acknowledged its importance, this is a moment for recognising the importance of ceremony and ritual to people who experience life outside a religious context but follow a philosophy of life which engages ethical principles. As we move towards accepting the Bill, we are becoming more inclusive in the way Senator O’Keeffe argued in seconding the Bill. As other speakers, including the Minister, have acknowledged, the Humanist Association of Ireland and those associated with it have demonstrated very well that the word “non-religious” does not mean “non-ethical”.
As we are debating an amendment to the Civil Registration Act, I wish to highlight section 59E of the Act, under which religious bodies or associations are prevented from holding civil partnerships in their venues, even in cases where they may wish to do so. I refer to the express wish of the Unitarian Church on St. Stephen’s Green and members of the Quaker religion who wish to recognise and solemnise civil partnerships. Section 59E was inserted in the Civil Registration Act by section 16 of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. In light of this debate and the correct and proper decision to extend rights to the Humanist Association of Ireland, why does it remain the case that religious organisations which wish to celebrate civil partnerships are prevented from doing so? I acknowledge that my colleague, Senator Norris, raised these issues during the debate on the civil partnership legislation. Does discussion of the Bill provide us with an opportunity to amend the Civil Registration Act in this regard? At the start of this month, the United Kingdom Government announced that religious bodies in the UK which wish to perform civil partnership ceremonies in their venues will soon be permitted to do so.
I remind Senators that the introduction of the Civil Registration Act in 2004 marked the first time marriage was defined in statute as being between a man and woman. In light of the Minister’s comments, I was interested to note that a widespread consultation process took place before the Civil Registration Act was implemented. How many times during the consultation process were calls made to define marriage in statute as being between a man and woman?
I commend my colleagues for introducing this timely and valuable Bill. I have great respect for my humanist friends and colleagues, including the Humanist Association of Ireland. Speaking as a committed and believing Christian, I believe one of the most important principles in religious life is the principle of positive doubt. A great deal of damage is done by people who presume to know the mind of God and inflict their perception on other people. This is particularly dangerous when done in a political context.
Senator Bacik, in introducing the Bill, referred to the very difficult economic times that the entire European system, if not the world system, is passing through and the pressures that each citizen feels. I concur with her that this is not a trivial question as it is one that deals with the happiness and security of individuals and respect for their domestic arrangements. These issues are at the core of our life as a humane society. I do not see any difficulty in considering social matters of this nature during a period of economic crisis and have frequently stated in the House that one of the problems in the financial crisis is that it tends to dislodge and divert attention from any consideration of human rights. In such a climate, human rights issues can easily suffer. It would be a great pity if that were allowed to happen.
I do not have any difficulty with the Minister’s designated powers. It is not necessary to refer to the specific organisation on its own. I know people have a wide view and I doubt they would have a restriction placed. I happen to have reasonable confidence in the judgment of Ministers and cannot foresee circumstances arising in which eccentric decisions would be made. The Minister may be able to answer a question. While I note she does not appear to have advisers with her, I am sure the relevant information could be obtained. The Church of Scientology is a church or group about which serious questions concerning whether it is a religious body have been raised in European legal fora. Is this designation, which has been challenged in other European countries, accepted here? Scientology is a body about which many people have reservations, not because of any wish to discriminate on the basis of religious belief but because they believe it is a cult. I presume the Unification Church, commonly known as “the Moonies”, is covered by the provisions of the Bill.
With regard to the queries raised by Senator Mooney — undoubtedly with his usual eloquence and in good faith — the power of designation of the Minister does not challenge Parliament in any serious way. For example, should the Minister be required to place such a recommendation before the House, the Government would have the voting strength to vote it through anyway. Therefore, there is no real challenge. If the Minister decides to designate, she is going to designate whether it requires a rubber stamp from this House or the other House, because I imagine that is what it would be. That is a rather theoretical approach; it is not a serious difficulty.
I share the Minister’s concern, as expressed in her speech, about the lack of criteria by which the Minister would designate a body. That needs to be examined. We also need to look at the criteria by which the person is designated because this is a function that would require dignity and standing. It would be useful to put down some test.
Senator Bacik referred to the ten required attributes for accreditation. They are all very worthy, but they are vague. A humanist outlook is not particularly vague and I accept that, but how is compassionate nature assessed? I know people who appear to be compassionate and suddenly they turn out not to be quite as compassionate as I imagined when action is called for.
Then there is the ability to deal with people, which has a HR aspect, including judgment, appearance, articulation, organisational skills and ability to give time. These criteria may be fine for the humanist and I am sure they work within these small groups, but for an objective assessment, we need to examine these criteria and enshrine them in the Bill.
This Bill is very useful. I am glad that Senator Zappone referred to the earlier passage of the registration Bill. I raised issues concerning the recognition of same sex relationships at that point. I certainly raised it during the passage of the civil partnership Bill. There is a serious problem here because it amounts to religious discrimination. I do not think I have ever attended a humanist service, but I would be very happy to do so, should be I invited, although I hope it would be a wedding or a christening rather than a funeral. The Quakers and the Unitarians have no difficulty whatever in solemnising not just civil partnerships but full, same sex marriage. I know this because I have attended one of those in the Unitarian church in St. Stephen’s Green. It seems to represent discrimination against a particular religion not to permit this. I argued that point strongly during the passage of the previous Bill.
I am very happy that this Bill should go through. It will benefit from amendments and I am sure that Senator Bacik and Senator O’Keeffe will be in a position to do this. We on this side will play a co-operative role and perhaps while it is being redrafted, they will consider the points that have been made. They may not accept them, but they might like to consider them for inclusion in the discussion. I assume that we are just dealing with Second Stage today and it will be possible to table this type of amendment. I look forward to the opportunity to speak further on the Bill on Committee Stage.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I also welcome this Bill and commend Senator Bacik for her initiative in bringing it forward. I extend my welcome to her as a member of the Humanist Association of Ireland in the House today.
I accept the broad thrust of the Bill and believe it plays an important role in allowing the joyous ceremony of marriage to be open to people of all persuasions and none. Any couple who have made the commitment to marry each other should be given the change to celebrate this special occasion through their own belief and choice.
We are becoming an increasingly secular society. In recognising that, we need to ensure we are becoming increasingly inclusive. For that reason, this measure is very important. It is very useful that this House can play a role in this respect. It is a positive development that the House can contribute to people’s happiness, as well as to their legal standing. At times like this when we are down in the dumps in many ways, it is very good that we can celebrate that the Houses of Parliament can contribute to that. Everything we do should be contributing to a more equal, fair, more inclusive and happier society. I would use this measurement tool in my own life.
Christenings, weddings, funerals, communions and confirmations are the only religious events in the otherwise secular lives of thousands of Irish people today. The need to celebrate a rite of passage and to attach a ritual to family milestones is innate in everyone from atheists to fundamentalists. Most Irish people want to share their new arrival, their childhood memories, their union or the death of a loved one with their family, friends and community in an organised fashion.
However, not every family wants to be involved in formal religion in these ceremonies. The latest figures from the CSO bear this out, with the number of civil marriage ceremonies having increased substantially to 23% of marriages in 2006 and 2007 and 24% in 2008. While divorcees account for a number of these marriages, of the 5,299 in 2008, over 3,000 of them were marriages in which the bride and groom were not previously married. This indicates that previously single people are also shying away from religious ceremonies for one reason or another. Evidence from the CSO suggests that in 2012 for the first time, the number of civil wedding ceremonies may exceed the number of religious ceremonies. It is safe to conclude that humanists contribute to some of those figures. The number of people in Ireland stating that they have no religion has more than doubled with every census from 1961 to 2002.
Only an ordained minister of religion and registrars employed by the HSE are eligible for registration as solemnisers and to perform marriages that are recognised by Irish law. This provision can exclude a number of groups of Irish citizens who wish to celebrate their union through their belief, such as humanism, rather than through an established major religion or through a non-religious civil society. This Bill aims to broaden section 45 of the Civil Registration Act 2004 to include a body designated by the Minister which will allow certain bodies, groups and associations that are currently excluded to have their members registered as celebrants of legal marriages. The humanist desire to avail of this is very worthy and should be recognised.
If other beliefs emerge, will the Bill cover them? What are the criteria in that regard? Is the Church of Scientology designated as such a body? Senator Norris spoke about the need for objective criteria in order that we can assess other bodies if and when they come forward, and I agree with this.
I wish the best for this Bill. Fine Gael will support it. However, I regret that the Civil Registration Act 2004 is being amended without also adding an important amendment that was argued for while we were in opposition, which is an amendment to have the deaths of Irish people who die abroad not registered at home. There was a major campaign on this issue in the last two years. The Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, signed the "Bring them home" petition. In this House and at the Joint Committee on Social Protection there were many opportunities for Irish families to present their cases. It is unfortunate, and I will give one case in point.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I will finish up on this. A young man from Galway — this is only one family — died in a terrible accident while in America on a summer student visa, but to this day his Irish passport is alive because the law does not recognise the registration of death in Ireland of a person who dies abroad within certain limits, maybe up to five years. It can only be registered in the country where the person died. This Bill presents an excellent opportunity to deal with this issue. I would like the support of Senator Bacik on this. Between now and Committee Stage, we should table amendments to the Bill. The former Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, was doing a lot of work in this area. We are celebrating people’s happiness at every level — birth and marriage. We should recognise deaths in this Bill also.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Ba bhreá liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. I would like also to welcome our guests from the Humanist Association of Ireland. I too welcome this Bill and the principle behind it, and I would like to give two reasons for that. I am reminded of the British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who has gone on record in the past supporting the ongoing establishment of the Church of England. He says that for a particular reason: because he believes that what is good for the majority religious group is also good for the cause of religion generally in Britain. I see this debate in similar terms. I think it was Senator Susan O’Keeffe who said that it strengthens our respect for solemnity. It also strengthens our respect for those important moments in people’s lives when we include the legitimate aspirations of people of goodwill who are true to their own philosophies and ethical systems and who want to be part of the process of solemnising important moments for people who share those values and philosophies. It is only fair, in the context of a pluralist society, that we remember that the State has an interest in the solemnising of relationships, particularly marriage but also partnerships. Therefore, it is only because we recognise that the State has a legitimate public and social interest in this that it should not be the sole preserve of religious groups.
I am reminded of the divorce referendum back in 1995. I was one of those people who opposed divorce. Many people at the time opposed it not for religious or dogmatic reasons, but from the perspective of the genuine social good that marriage involves for society and concern about the impact on children, the stability of marriage and so on. Whether one agreed or disagreed with those reasons, the point was that we do not just have to have confessional or dogmatic reasons for advocating a particular point of view. That is often forgotten in our society. We should see marriage and now civil partnership as well, because Parliament has voted it in, as a social good and therefore something that different groups should be involved in.
Senator Mooney has raised a legitimate point. I do not think it should simply be a matter of whom the Minister designates. I was involved in debates here on charities legislation and tabled a particular amendment at that time to prevent the fraudulent abuse and exploitation of mass cards by people who were unassociated with religious bodies, in particular, the Catholic Church, who were engaged in this trafficking in mass cards for the purposes of making money. At that time, the Government introduced an amendment to the legislation in which the Catholic Church was specifically mentioned, rightly so, in order to put a stop to the particular abuse that was going on.
I am not convinced there is any particular objection, in principle, to naming the Humanist Association of Ireland in legislation. Other speakers have mentioned the bodies that are included. I was thinking about this and I have concerns in this regard. I believe there is a Church of Satan in the world, although I do not know whether it exists in Ireland, and I am not particularly happy about the idea of its being involved in solemnising relationships. That leads us to an important principle. We may not be able to agree about God, but we should always strive to agree about what is good. Senator Bacik, or perhaps Senator O’Keeffe, talked about people who are united by their respect for reason and compassion. Organisations that have a genuine respect for reason and compassion cannot but be good if they are engaged in a genuine search for what is reasonable and compassionate.
I share the perspective of the late Pope John Paul II, who said that faith and reason are the two wings on which the spirit rises to a contemplation of truth. That is my personal philosophy and I value it greatly, but I long for and am happy to have a dialogue with those who have other means of trying to approach what is good and what is true.
In that regard, I welcome the comments of Senator Zappone. I find it a persuasive argument when she says that since civil partnership is legal in this country — I continue to think about this issue — why should religious organisations that have no objection in principle to civil partnership not be involved in the registration of marriages? We could have a useful debate about that. I must be awkward, though, and say that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is interesting to think about why the current situation came about. It is probably that the State, in some sense, in excluding religious organisations from participation in that way, was seeking to somehow co-opt the solemnity that is associated with religious organisations for the ongoing particular respect for marriage that is constitutionally entrenched. However, that of itself is not a sufficient argument.
I recall tabling amendments to the civil partnership legislation in which I sought protections for people’s individual consciences in the provision of services associated with civil partnership. We could take those two things together in a mutually respectful way and say that we will respect the rights of different religious groups that have no problem with civil partnership to be involved in its provision, but we will also respect the rights of people who have particular religious or philosophical objections not to be involved, whether it is in the provision of services or some other area, or, if possible, to accommodate registrars who might have an objection, in a way that is consistent with the ability of the apparatus of the State to provide whatever services are involved.
Let us try to surprise people with the alliances we can strike and with our respect for each other. If there is one thing our society needs at the moment, it is a respect for seriousness. We are talking about deep and profound things, and Senator Bacik is absolutely right to introduce this issue; it is in no sense a distraction. These are deep and profound matters which unite people of deep religious conviction but also people of deep philosophical conviction. We should never be afraid to discuss these or to try to find common ground.
Tributes were rightly paid to the tradition of this House in discussing these important issues. I hope I played a modest part myself in introducing Private Members’ legislation which sought to protect human embryos from destructive research. Interestingly, that was also an issue that united people of faith with people who had no particular religious faith but who saw the issue through a human rights lens. Let us continue to surprise one another with our seriousness about the dialogue and with our willingness to find common ground where possible.
Senator Cáit Keane: I welcome the amendment to the Bill. I also welcome to the House the members of the Humanist Association of Ireland. It is most important that we are an inclusive society and that we accommodate difference, particularly with regard to marriage, because an inclusive, pluralist society makes us all better people, as we can all look into ourselves and see what we see in other people. I can do it my way, but we do not want everybody else to do it my way as well. The legislation is important because although marriage is a social union, it is also a legal contract which carries with it many implications for society as a whole and for individual persons. Some aspects of this include economic considerations, the establishment of a nuclear family and the protection of children. We should facilitate everyone in society and ensure the best possible rights are afforded to them and humanists should be included in the register. I understand the difficulty raised by Fianna Fáil and the need to get over it. The Minister referred to the criteria laid down. One would need the wisdom of Solomon to ensure one was totally inclusive in laying down the criteria. Anyway, we must make a stab at it because we cannot leave it to a Minister alone. One cannot decide that it will be the humanists today and someone else tomorrow. Criteria must be set down for the way in which groups are registered and how the Minister can register them. At the moment the Registrar General can refuse. There are criteria for refusal and we have no problem providing them to the Registrar General. I have no difficulty giving it to the Minister if the criteria are laid down but we must ensure the criteria are laid down and this and the other House will play an important role in that process.
Senator O’Keeffe referred to the Seanad being progressive in bringing forward important legislation for social change. She mentioned four women as well as Senators Bacik, David Norris and Rónán Mullen. We held a debate yesterday on women in politics during which the aim of 50:50 representation by 2020 was raised. During the debate I reflected on this side of the House and I asked myself whether the left side or the right side of my brain was working because I looked over at the other side of the House where there were only men, while this side of the House was made up of women only. I noted that the people Senator O’Keeffe mentioned with regard to social legislation were mostly women. Senator Norris is not here but he was included in the social list as well. A thought struck me at the meeting yesterday and it has remained fresh in my mind. There is a difference between social change and how it is progressed and the left and the right side of the brain. It is a minor matter but perhaps one to consider.
Senator Cáit Keane: That is important because no matter what Minister has the power,it is important to allow for the criteria to be changed at a certain time because of a changein the social aspects or something else. It is important to have a revocation, delisting or deregistering. I welcome the Bill, which is timely, and I congratulate Senator Bacik on bringing it forward.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I bring the debate to a close by thanking the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, and I welcome the Minister of State to the House in her place. I thank colleagues on both sides who have spoken so eloquently on the Bill. I thank the members of the Humanist Association of Ireland for their help and support with the Bill. I should have offered a special thanks to the Minister’s advisers and officials before now. They have been remarkably helpful throughout the drafting process in giving advice and they have been generous with their time.
I thank Senator O’Keeffe, who seconded the Bill on behalf on the Labour Party group and who spoke powerfully of the effect this legislation could have in creating a more equal and inclusive society. As Senator O’Keeffe noted so eloquently, we have found time in the House to reach beyond the appalling vista of the economic crisis and that is important. Many speakers have referred to it. It may appear somewhat obscure — I believe I used the word “trivial”— to debate an issue not directly connected to the economy but at a time such as this we should provide people with the genuinely good news story that this Bill represents. We must consider people’s quality of life and, as Senator Norris stated powerfully, we must have regard to human rights issues, issues related to the protection of minorities and inclusivity in our society. It is commendable that the Seanad has found time to do this and it is in keeping with the powerful tradition of the Seanad that others have mentioned. I should have commended Senator Mullen before now as well because he has brought forward important legislation, including legislation on criminalising the users of prostitutes. There is a long tradition in the House in this regard and we should have mentioned many others who have brought forward important legislation on important social issues.
Let us consider some of the specific issues raised. Senator O’Keeffe pointed out that the Bill will significantly enhance quality of life for couples and their families at a stressful time of planning weddings by simplifying the process for those who wish to engage in a humanist ceremony. That is an important point.
Senator Mooney raised an important drafting point, which I had addressed, about how one deals with the issue of broadening the definition of categories or bodies, whose members may be licensed to perform civil marriages. I am grateful to Senator Mooney for raising this point. All of us support the inclusion of humanists in principle and the expansion of the definition to cover humanists. The only question remaining is how this is to be done. There is no real disagreement between us. It is a logistical issue that must be dealt with on Committee Stage.
According to my notes of what everyone said, we must either change the Bill to name the Humanist Association of Ireland specifically or we must provide criteria for either the Minister or the Chief Registrar to designate a body. I have no particular preference. It may be more straightforward to name the humanists and I am grateful to Senator Mullen for pointing out to all of us a recent precedent for naming specific religious institutions in legislation. We must examine the matter and I will do so in collaboration with the Minister’s advisers and officials. It is something we must deal with on Committee Stage. I thank the Minister. Her speech was helpful in that she indicated that the inclusion of the Humanist Association of Ireland was considered but ruled out during the drafting of the 2004 Act. She raised the issue of the need for criteria and we must consider this while making any amendments.
Senator Zappone spoke powerfully of the importance of recognising the centrality of ceremony and ritual for persons from non-religious backgrounds and traditions and of how non-religious does not mean non-ethical. Senators Zappone and Healy Eames referred to other aspects of the Civil Registration Act that could usefully be amended, including that civil partnerships cannot be performed by anyone other than a HSE registrar and, as Senators Norris and Mullen mentioned, some religions such as the Quakers and the Unitarian Church are thought to be able to celebrate civil partnerships in a legal manner in their churches. It is important to note that the United Kingdom Government has announced its intention to change its laws to facilitate this. This matter should be considered.
Senators Norris and Healy Eames referred to the Church of Scientology. This is useful because under the current definition of a religious body it seems that the Church of Scientology would be covered and it may have sought registration of solemnisers although we must clarify this. Senator Healy Eames also raised an important point about another potential amendment to the Civil Registration Act to provide for the registration of deaths of Irish citizens who die abroad. We should consider this as well and I thank Senator Healy Eames for reminding me about it because I was not aware that this was an issue when the original Act was debated.
I am grateful to Senator Mullen for his support for the Bill. We surprise people with the alliances we made and he has certainly surprised me but I am grateful to him and I appreciate his support for the Bill. While it is a technical, amending Bill, it deals with a serious, deep and profound matter that is of central importance in people’s lives, of this there is no doubt. I am pleased that we can have cross-party dialogue on the matter and support for the Bill. The Senator raised an important precedent about the naming of specific institutions in legislation.
I thank Senator Keane for her support. Her reference to the preponderance of women on this side of the House was not lost on Senator O’Keeffe or myself. We also observed that a woman Minister was dealing with the Bill and that a woman is in the Chair and that she is being generous with time too.
I will conclude with a specific answer to Senator Keane. There is already provision in the 2004 Act for the deregistration of persons as solemnisers. A rigorous set of criteria is set out in the Act for how the Chief Registrar operates the decision making powers related to whom he or she registers as a solemniser. There is a separate filtering mechanism. In other words, even if one’s organisation is recognised as being capable of applying to have one’s members registered as solemnisers, individuals must still be approved by the Chief Registrar.
I thank all those who took part in the debate and the House for supporting the Bill. I also thank the Minister for her support. I look forward to Committee Stage when we will have a full debate on some of the more technical aspects to be addressed. However, I am pleased all of us support the principle of expanding the definition of those who can conduct civil marriages in the country.
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