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Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second and Subsequent Stages (Continued)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 5

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  4 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea] Most people would find it undesirable that such organisations might be authorised to solemnise marriages among their members in this country simply because they happen to be part of a religious group as per the broad definition set out in the principal Act. Will the Minister clarify the position of such organisations in respect of the Act, as amended by this Bill?

I welcome the legislation generally and wish it a speedy passage through the House. Despite the other problems that currently bedevil the country, it is good that Parliament can take time out to assist the members of a very worthwhile organisation who, as I said, live their lives in accordance with the highest ethical principles.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Zoom on Aengus Ó Snodaigh I do not intend to oppose this legislation, some aspects of which I welcome. I am concerned, however, that, in other aspects, it is leading us along a dangerous path. I will explain the reasoning behind that observation as I proceed. The list of religions already authorised to solemnise marriage reflects the increasingly diverse nature of our society. I have attended a good number of marriage services in my time, both religious and humanist, and found that each one was conducted in an appropriate fashion. Some of what we are discussing in regard to this legislation might be more appropriate as part of a broader discussion on the Constitution. The constitutional convention that is due to be established would be an appropriate forum in that regard, but I understand this is not one of the issued tabled for discussion.

  I welcome the Bill in so far as it accommodates humanists in this country, but it is nevertheless a somewhat bizarre item of legislation. We are told that the purpose of the Bill is to extend the facility to perform the function of marriage solemniser to secular bodies. As it stands, Health Service Executive employees and members of religious bodies are the only persons permitted to perform that function. In that context, it is bizarre that the HSE does not allow staff engaged in this role to work at weekends, which is when most people prefer to have their marriage service. If there is a requirement for a higher fee to be charged for weekend services, so be it. That type of accommodation might have addressed many of the concerns that have given rise to this legislation without allowing the devil and all, as it were, the facility to perform the function of solemniser.

  The definition of a "secular body" around which the entire Bill is based is problematic. Specifically, it is somewhat ridiculous that a definition should contain within itself the word it aims to define. The definition in section 3 provides, inter alia, that a body will be deemed to be secular if it is an "organised group of people" and its principal objectives are "secular, ethical and humanist". Nowhere in the Bill, however, is there a definition of what is meant by "secular". Likewise, "ethical" or "humanist" are not defined. Just as there are dangers in going down the route of being overly descriptive, there are also dangers when legislation is not properly descriptive.

  It is also a matter of concern when a definition relies heavily on references to what it is not rather than what it is. Unfortunately, that is a characteristic of a great deal of legislation. In this instance, 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. Perhaps Senator Bacik will become the deity of the Humanist Association of Ireland in the future. To avoid any confusion here, let me clarify that I am joking on that last point.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton Zoom on Joan Burton None of us is that perfect.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Zoom on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Perhaps. We will have to wait and see.

  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.

  I am reminded in all of this of an episode of "South Park" in which Cartman, who simply cannot wait for the new Nintendo games console to be available in the shops, transports himself into the future where a war is being waged between the United Atheist Alliance, the Unified Atheist League and the Allied Atheist Alliance. This gag may have been borrowed from a classic film. I recall gleefully watching "The Life of Brian" when it was banned in this country in 1979. It shows how far we have come as a society that we can now at least understand satire. In the film, the conflict was between the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front. There will be occasions when such disagreements arise between different religious groups and different non-religious groups, respectively. In fact, there is recognition of that in the Bill in the provision to allow for marriages to continue even after the dissolution of the religion under which they were solemnised, which is rather a bizarre concept. The draughtsmen were very diligent in their work in this regard.

  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.

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