An open letter to fellow members of the Humanist Association of Ireland by Andrew Devine-Rattigan

Dear fellow members of the Humanist Association of Ireland,

I address you all in relation to the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill that came in to law after being passed by the Dail in December 2012. Many of you may feel that on the face of it this is a victory for the Humanist Association as it will allow for non-religious people to have their marriages legally solemnised by a celebrant from the HAI.

Previously, couples seeking a non-religious ceremony would firstly have had to go to a registry office in order to be legally married, and then have had a Humanist ceremony to celebrate their marriage. The new change in the law will now cut out the need for couples to have to attend two ceremonies as the Humanist solemniser now has legal recognition that he or she previously did not have.

Perhaps many of you will think this is a progressive step, but a clear reading of the law itself, and the requirements that the HAI must fulfil, reveals that this law runs contrary to the stated aims of the HAI and conflicts with the core values of humanism itself. The new law prohibits any secular body that might nominate a solemniser from promoting a political cause, as well as a whole list of other exclusions to adhere to, in order to obtain a licence to solemnise marriages. However, religious organisations are not excluded from solemnising marriages according to the same criteria.

The stated aims of the HAI

The reasons that I joined the HAI are best expressed by the stated aims on our website:

“The HAI campaigns for equal treatment by the state of the non-religious with the religious; the abolition of religious privileges; and ultimately the total separation of Church from State. It aspires to a balanced secular society.”

In light of what our stated aims are, how can we in the HAI agree to a law that has a list of exclusions for secular organisations that seek to solemnise marriages, whilst this same list of exclusions doesn’t apply to religious bodies? For us in the HAI to endorse such a law is a clear breach of our purported aim to seek the equal treatment of the non-religious with the religious and the abolition of religious privileges.

In endorsing this legislation, it is clear that the Board of Directors of the HAI are satisfied to allow the HAI to be discriminated against and treated unequally, and thus are acting in contravention of the aims that are outlined on our website.

Just what is it that is motivating the Board to endorse legislation that actually contravenes the very aims of the HAI itself?

The Board seems comfortable to allow the HAI to have to comply with a list of exclusions in the new legislation that religious bodies do not have to adhere to, thus the HAI is complicit in discriminating against the non-religious, the very thing we claim to be against.

However, there is one of the exclusions that the HAI doesn’t comply with, and that is the clause in the Act that prohibits any secular nominating body from promoting a political cause, which the HAI clearly does.

Debate after Sunday’s HAI meeting

After the last meeting of the HAI in Dublin on the 7th April, a debate ensued between several members who are in support of the new law, including a member of the Board of Directors, and several of us who are opposed to it.

Those of us who opposed the law pointed out both the fact that it discriminates against the non-religious and also that legally we wouldn’t even be able to comply with the new law, in that the HAI promotes the political cause of separation of church and state. Those members in favour of the new law argued that the HAI is not involved in promoting any political cause, but rather is engaged in the advancement of various social causes and therefore the granting of the first legal licence to a HAI solemniser is in full accordance with the law, even if it is a discriminatory law (my emphasis).

It is my opinion that these members don’t even believe this themselves and are just using semantics to try and justify supporting a law that discriminates against the aims of the HAI, and allows them to argue that the HAI is complying with a law that it is clearly in breach of.

Besides, all social causes have a political dimension in that to advance a social cause you have to engage with the political process and state institutions, thus also making them political causes. Surely the total separation of the church and state is as explicit a political cause as one can find?

Our website states that one of the activities of the HAI is that it “makes appropriate submissions to government for changes in the Constitution, Legislation and State practices.” By simply stating the aims of the HAI are a social cause in order to comply with a discriminatory piece of legislation doesn’t negate the fact that they are also a political cause.

Orwellian doublethink

All in all to argue that we are not involved in a cause that we clearly are, and to try and argue that the HAI exists primarily to campaign for equality whilst it endorses a law that is grossly unequal and discriminatory, is to engage in an egregious display of Orwellian doublethink which is:

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… to forget any fact that has become inconvenient.”

I believe that we in the HAI in order to be consistent with our declared aims on our website should have stood together with Atheist Ireland in opposing such a blatantly discriminatory piece of legislation.

At the very least we could have made applications to the registrar for licences for solemnisers and then openly declared that we would be in breach of the legislation as we do engage in promoting a political cause. This could have been an opportunity to publicly highlight the continuing discrimination against the non-religious and the special privileges still maintained by religious organisations.

Instead the HAI has endorsed a law that violates its own principals and aims. For the HAI to endorse such a piece of legislation calls in to question the integrity of the HAI as an organisation that purports to seek equality for the non-religious.

Seeking an EGM for members to discuss issue

I believe that the best way to deal with this issue is by way of constructive dialogue between us, the ordinary members, and the Board of Directors, who are of course also members.

In accordance with the Companies Act which governs the activities of the HAI, I along with several other members of the HAI will be seeking to convene an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the issues raised in this letter.

We will be writing to the membership of the HAI to garner the ten per cent support required to convene such a meeting.

I appeal to the individual members of the Humanist Association to ask yourself in good conscience if you believe that the HAI should endorse a law that is blatantly and clearly at odds with the principles of equality and non-discrimination, and if supporting such a law furthers the aim of building a more secular state or contributes to perpetuating discrimination of the non-religious?

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Devine-Rattigan

Atheist Ireland


  1. Avatar
    joesixtwo April 10, 2013

    The HAI have made a decision that it will regret. A decision that was very short sighted indeed.

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    John April 11, 2013

    Perhaps it is the power of prayer on the part of Christians that is causing this split in atheist ranks. The Lord works in mysterious ways. I will dedicate my next rosary to the split intensifying.

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      Derek Walsh April 11, 2013

      That would indeed be a very mysterious way for your lord to work. Perhaps when you’re next fingering your beads, you could find something more noble for him to do. Ending world hunger, curing cancer, stopping tsunamis, something a bit more meaty than presiding over a minor regional political difference.

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    Billy Hutchinson April 12, 2013

    Currently I’m a member of Atheist Ireland and also I’m a Humanist celebrant. I am greatly distressed, very sad, and upset. I am 100% supportive of the HAI. You may immediately say ‘well you would say that, you’ve a vested interest’. But I must point out that no matter what the outcome, I will continue to do ceremonies for couples who are simply looking for a positive option of getting married and having a beautiful ceremony all in the one day. I love my work, and to be able to solemnise a wedding would be most wonderful.

    I feel strongly that this debate serves nothing more than to divide and damage the HAI. While the author of this open letter and Michael Nugent have an idealistic approach, I have a realistic one. The bill might not be perfect, but it gets us on the bus, and not left at the bus stop. We can continue to campaign to improve the law. Simply rejecting the bill is, in my own opinion, unnecessarily hard-line, and counterproductive.

    I do not have the sophistication of academia to debate the intricacies of the legalities. I have to leave that to others to debate. I just wanted to give you a small taste of a celebrants perspective. A celebrant who feels most hurt by this AI-driven campaign.

    Is this bill perfect – of course not. I believe there are many laws that aren’t perfect, they cannot grant equality for everyone. But to reject it outright, because it might ‘compromise’ the HAI’s ‘mission statement’ is, in my opinion, shortsighted.

    I started doing ceremonies for births, marriages and deaths, out of simply a sense of wishing to serve the non-religious community. I have a lot of passion, care, compassion, feeling, emotion, for the couples I do wedding ceremonies for. I didn’t feel that way two years ago, before I did my first one. It has emerged in me, and I was most pleasantly surprised as it emerged. Those who are not celebrants might never really understand this emotion. This is why this apparent ‘attack’ feels so personal. I also feel very much for all those couples who are longing for the all-in-one non-religious ceremony.

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      Michael Nugent April 12, 2013

      Billy, I will reply in more detail later to the points you make about the personal dimension, because I agree that they are important.

      But when you say:

      “The bill might not be perfect, but it gets us on the bus, and not left at the bus stop. We can continue to campaign to improve the law.”

      That is one of several important political reasons why some of us are opposed to the HAI signing up to this law.

      If the HAI becomes a nominating body under this law, then the HAI *cannot* continue to campaign to improve the law.

      Campaigning to improve the law is indisputably promoting a political cause, which the HAI is stating that it does not do by signing up this law.

      As I said, I will reply later to the points you make about the personal dimension.

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      Derek Walsh April 12, 2013

      “The bill might not be perfect, but it gets us on the bus”

      Rosa Parks was allowed on the bus too. But that wasn’t enough.

      Billy, I sympathise with your viewpoint, I really do. You’ve been fighting for equal treatment for a long time and you’ve now come closer to it than ever before. But you’re wrong that laws “cannot grant equality for everyone”. They can, but this one does not. The HAI leadership could have rejected it and demanded true equality. They did not and I think that reflects poorly on them.

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        Billy Hutchinson April 12, 2013

        I disagree Derek. And I am happy with that. The AI campaign is simply divisive and destructive.

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          Derek Walsh April 12, 2013

          Billy, I hope you understand the point is not being raised merely to be divisive or out of misguided pedantry. We believe the law discriminates against non-religious people and among non-religious people. The original amendment was modified by the Attorney General’s office before being voted on, and despite the best efforts of Atheist Ireland was passed with the added discriminatory sections. Had the HAI joined us at the time in asking for these to be modified, they very likely would have been. As it is, the leaders of the HAI must now declare that the HAI does not promote a political cause in order to have its members solemnise marriages. It seems they have already done so. This is a disappointing outcome. To me it seems like they came within a whisker of true equality and then threw in the towel, settling for a second-rate status instead.
          Atheist Ireland will continue to promote the political cause of an ethical secular state, and we hope the HAI will continue to be our allies in this fight.

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            Billy Hutchinson April 12, 2013

            When you say ‘they’, you must also include me in that, because I fully support my association in this decision. I would suggest you lobby your TDs for a change of this bill, as is the best way to handle this. We will continue our campaigns to make change, and we do it in a different way.
            As you say, AI lobbied and failed to stop it. MNs applications were considered and rejected. Please stop driving a huge wedge into our association.

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            Billy Hutchinson April 12, 2013

            I must also state that I did not choose that aggressive looking avatar – it appeared on it’s own accord. I am not an aggressive person. Right now though I am distressed and greatly saddened.

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            Derek Walsh April 12, 2013


            We will of course continue to lobby TDs although the task is made that much harder now that the amendment has been passed. We will also continue to bring this matter to the attention of the public, including members of the HAI, so that people are aware of the relevant facts and can make up their own minds. I’m sure you wouldn’t have it any other way.
            If the majority of the HAI agree with you, and the government gives us a definition of “promoting a political cause” that doesn’t include what the HAI does. then nothing has been lost, and your position will have been strengthened. If on the other hand. our concerns are justified then I’m sure you’d agree that knowledge on the matter is better than ignorance, even if things aren’t going the way you’d wish.
            (If you don’t have your own avatar, one is auto-generated for you, which makes it easier to follow long conversations.)

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    Billy Hutchinson April 12, 2013

    I must also stress that I didn’t choose that aggressive looking avatar.

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    Andrew D.Rattigan April 13, 2013

    Billy I too am a member of the HAI but I believe if we have principles then we should stick to them. We are either campaigning for equality or we are not. We either believe in equality or we don’t. Our whole reason for existing is to bring about equality and to stop the non-religious from being discriminated against, so why would we accept a law that treats us unequal compared to religions? Or is the HAI happy to accept being treated unequally? If that is the case then we need to change our objectives as outlined on our website. I joined the HAI because I thought they believed in the objectives on our website and wouldnt compromise them. Many members feel the same. My intention is not to create distress or bad feeling but just to create debate in the interests of the HAI being true to the principles that is espouses. These principals are what attracted many members to join and I believe we must remain true to them.

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    Asha Marie April 15, 2013

    My partner and I are having a humanist wedding ceremony next year as we feel it is the type of ceremony that most reflects our own personal beliefs, the fact that the ceremonies are now becoming legal was also a big factor in cementing our decision. Several friends of ours have now also expressed an interest in humanist ceremonies and in learning more about humanism. Allowing legal ceremonies can only further your cause by making humanist ceremonies much more mainstream & making many more people such as ourselves aware of and interested in humanism. I cant see how it is anything but a positive step. I understand the argument of Atheist Ireland but it seems such a pedantic and inflexible stance. There are many important causes to make a stand against in this world, surely allowing couples the right to celebrate their marriage in a legal humanist ceremony is not one of them.

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      Billy Hutchinson April 21, 2013

      Thank you for your support Asha. I agree wholeheartedly with your words “a pedantic and inflexible stance” by those in opposition to positive progress. I fear the AI and others who say they are ‘Humanist’ (clearly not), are simply enjoying bashing fellow freethinkers. It’s a most sad time.

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        Derek Walsh April 23, 2013

        Billy, I have to say I’m disappointed with your comment. It’s insulting to be told when we raise genuine concerns about a discriminatory law that we “are simply enjoying bashing fellow freethinkers”. I hope you don’t genuinely believe that, and that you will consider retracting it.
        As you’re no doubt aware, a significant number of HAI members share these concerns, while the board of the HAI seems uninterested in discussing the matter. There’s certainly no indication on the website that they are continuing to campaign for a better law. The letter they recently sent to members presents a very one-sided view, calls for a vote in an unorthodox – if not improper – manner, and ignores Andrew’s call for an EGM. I understand their reluctance to act against their own interests, but I think they have a responsibility to take these concerns seriously and to deal with them in a fair and impartial manner. And right now, I think they’re falling short of that.

        • Avatar
          Billy Hutchinson April 25, 2013

          I said “I fear they are…” I did not day “They are”. “I fear” being a ‘probablility’, a ‘doubt’ There is nothing to retract. Unless it offends you. Then I retract.

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    Tara Griffin April 15, 2013

    Billy, I’m with you mate. I think this is causing unnecessary division in an already divided community (see Atheism+).

    I’m delighted that HAI has now managed to secure the ability to conduct ceremonies, small steps I agree, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.

    Let’s start being more supportive of each other.


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      Billy Hutchinson April 21, 2013

      Thank you for your positive support Tara. It’s good to know we have such positive thinkers out there.

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    Michael Nugent April 17, 2013


    It is not a small step. It is a large step backwards. The HAI has the ability to conduct ceremonies, but only if it stops promoting the political cause of secularism.

    And the HAI is blurring that hugely significant issue by pretending that it is not promoting the political cause of secularism, and hoping that the state will turn a blind eye to their breaking of the law.

    That is the kind of a nod-and-wink hypocritical Ireland that many of us have spend all of our adult lives trying to change, and maintaining it is just as damaging when our supposed allies do it as it is when traditionalists do it.

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    Emma Sides April 17, 2013

    As a member of the HAI pretty much since its inception I would also like to add my voice to this debate. There have been some very strong claims made that the HAI is a political organisation. I would like to draw your attention to the HAI’s Memorandum of Association – the basis on which the HAI was originally constituted and still continues to operate. I invite members of AI to visit the HAI website and read the Memorandum in full, but I quote a portion of it below:

    “The main object for which the company is established is to advance education and in particular the study of Humanism and the dissemination of knowledge of its principles. It goes on to include subsidiary objectives such as promoting the ideals and values of Humanism and to engage in such other social, educational, legal, cultural and charitable activity as will be useful and beneficial to members of the HAI and to the community as a whole”.

    There is no mention of politics, or political activity or political cause. The HAI was explicitly founded on the basis that it would NOT be political. The HAI was in fact established primarily so that people whose philosophical outlook on life was an ethical one in a secular context, could meet with each other and share a common ground.

    Reading all of the posts on this topic on the AI website I have to confess I find it hard not to feel that AI has its own agenda and for reasons best known to itself is trying to influence the direction the HAI is taking and re-define the HAI’s agenda. I don’t understand why AI is trying to politicise the HAI. AI was set up precisely because its founders wanted to take a different approach but now some members of AI appear to be trying to bend the HAI to their will. AI should allow the HAI to continue to act according to its charter, not seek to force their approach on us.

    The bill we are all so concerned with was debated in the Dáil and AI’s concerns were addressed at that time. That is democracy in action. If the government and all the relevant ministers felt that the HAI had a political cause then the legislation could never have been passed. In achieving this landmark for the non-religious community in Ireland the HAI have acted entirely according to its principles. The HAI will continue to campaign for better legislation – as and when it is appropriate. However next time round it will have the weight of hundreds of legal weddings behind it. Ceremonies are the public face of the Association – they are an excellent way to spread the message that Humanism is an active, positive philosophy in its own right and more than a reaction to religion

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    Michael Nugent April 18, 2013


    When you say:

    “The HAI will continue to campaign for better legislation – as and when it is appropriate. However next time round it will have the weight of hundreds of legal weddings behind it.”

    that illustrates the very problem that is being raised.

    The HAI *cannot* continue to campaign for better legislation if it signs up to this Act, because campaigning for better legislation is promoting a political cause, which is outlawed by the Act for bodies that nominate solemnisers.

    Regardless of what is written in the memo and arts of the company, it is indisputable that the HAI promotes the political cause of secularism in the form of legal separation of church and state.

    The HAI website, as relaunched in April 2013, on its ‘About Us’ page, says the following:

    What we do: The HAI provides a forum for Humanists and other non-religious people to meet and share experiences and develop their personal ideals in an informal, friendly environment.

    More formally, the HAI campaigns for equal treatment by the State of the non-religious with the religious; the abolition of religious privileges; and ultimately the total separation of Church from State. It aspires to a balanced, secular society.

    Specifically, the HAI [list follows of things that the HAI does, including] … makes appropriate submissions to Government for changes in the Constitution, Legislation and State practices.

    The HAI website, as relaunched in April 2013, on its ‘Campaigns’ page, says the following:

    The HAI is working towards a secular state and the equal treatment of people of no religion in the Constitution, in legislation and other practices of the State and its agencies by campaigning on behalf of the non-religious in Ireland in a number of areas. On an ongoing basis, the HAI seeks to have a secular Constitution and has identified the need for change in the following areas:
    The Constitution itself by deleting:
    the religious preamble
    the requirement for religious oaths/declarations for judges and holders of high office
    its concept of blasphemy
    Changes in State practices relating to:
    Oireachtas prayers
    religious oaths for jurors and witnesses
    the use of State property for religious purposes
    primary and secondary education (including primary teacher training, school chaplains and the religious curriculum)
    medical care
    religious symbols in public places
    the national Census
    the use of State employees for religious purposes
    These and other topics are more fully described in the HAI publication ‘Equality for the Non-Religious’

    All of that lobbying will have to stop if the HAI signs up to this Act.

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    John April 18, 2013

    Glad to see my rosary is paying off. Keep it up. Maybe the HAI realised that campaigning for Nugent’s list of changes is a complete waste of time. A lost cause. Still, count your blessings. Obama just called on people to pray for Boston. How insensitive is that to atheists? If the Irish President did that (unlikely with the current one), the atheists would have him up before the European court in no time.

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    Andrew D.Rattigan April 22, 2013

    Emma and Tara.

    it is not AI that is driving a wedge in to the HAI. It is grassroots members of the HAI such as myself taking a stand and wanting their voices to be heard and campaigning for the board of the HAI to discuss this issue and allow its members to have an influence on whether the HAI should endorse what many of us feel is a law that is in conflict with the stated aims of the HAI.

    Is it not hypocritical to say that we campaign for equality for the non-religious and then accept a law that blatantly discriminates against the non-religious? The HAI doesnt advertise itself or invite members to join on the basis that it is happy to endorse laws that are blatantly discriminatory against the non-religious which this is.

    Also John has your god not got better things to do like sorting out the problem of man’s inhumanity to man? Is he also behind the de-facto split in the Catholic church spearheaded by the Association of Catholic Priests. He is an awful mischievous meddler this god character. Besides, I thought you theist believed he gave us free will?

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    Alan Murphy April 25, 2013

    A couple of weeks ago, I exchanged comments with Michael Nugent on this issue through his blog. At the time I was engaged, and now I’m honeymooning, having enjoyed a legal Humanist ceremony that meant the world to myself and my new wife.

    It was less than 24 hours before our scheduled civil ceremony, that we cancelled it to avail of the HAI’s newfound capacity to solemnise. Never more so than at that moment, did the freshly-dissolved prospect of my wife having to twice walk down the isle, twice exchange rings, twice exchange vows seem more debasing. That the dignified and beautiful Humanist ceremony two days later witnessed by all our family and friends, was so nearly foreshadowed by a perfunctory dry-run that the state told us we couldn’t avoid, makes my blood run cold.

    It is imperative that the voices of the secularist betrothed (and newlywed, such as myself) be heard. I empathise with AI and HAI members who feel the bill in question is flawed. But I feel those same members are lacking in the empathy to acknowledge that there are thousands of couples for whom this is a matter of practicality rather than principle.

    Furthermore, having read the various arguments (and acknowledging my obvious bias), I concur with the commenters who feel the naysayer position is inflexible and pedantic. The bill can be contested without attacking the HAI’s capacity to solemnise — particularly over a tawdry, semantic squabble about whether or not the HAI constitutes a political entity in the interpretive eyes of one state beholder.

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      Derek Walsh April 25, 2013

      Alan, congratulations on your marriage and I’m glad the ceremony was everything you wanted it to be.
      In many countries the situation that made your “blood run cold” is the norm, no matter the religious preferences of the participants. My partner is French and when her sister got married, the day began with a legal ceremony in the town hall, attended by immediate family and some close friends, which was followed by a larger and more involved church ceremony. Nobody felt aggrieved by this. In France, that’s what a wedding is. No church has the authority to legally solemnise a marriage and nobody expects them to.
      In other countries, pretty much anybody can solemnise a wedding. The cliché Las Vegas wedding by an Elvis impersonator is every bit as legally binding as the more traditional sort.
      There are good arguments for either sort of arrangement, or for any of several others. Our objection to the law in Ireland is not that it is at the wrong place in the spectrum, but that it explicitly discriminates against the non-religious, and between non-religious groups. I know that many members of the HAI are keen to have this issue clarified, and I hope the board of the HAI will facilitate a frank and open discussion of the issue.
      I understand your favouring of “practicality rather than principle” and I can’t say I would act differently in your position. If I was planning a wedding, having one tailor-made ceremony would probably be my preference, and I doubt I would worry too much about any ethical dilemmas the celebrant may have to face.
      But I’m not in that position or in the position of a celebrant earning money from performing weddings, so there is no practicality clouding my commitment to principle.
      If, somehow, the government’s understanding of “promoting a political cause” does not include campaigning and lobbying politicians for changes in the law in any of the numerous ways Michael detailed above, then members of the HAI can solemnise weddings in good conscience.
      Regardless of exactly what it means to promote a political cause, this is a restriction placed on non-religious groups that is not placed on religious groups, and this is the root of our objection to the law. It is discriminatory. The HAI has long campaigned against discriminatory laws, and we hope that it will continue to do so. Atheist Ireland certainly will.