Irish law on solemnising marriages still discriminates against atheists

A recent article by Hemant Mehta tells us that atheists can now solemnise marriages in Michigan after the State dropped its opposition. Up to now Michigan only permitted religious solemnisers and denied the authority to solemnise marriages to atheists.

Meanwhile, the Irish law on solemnising marriages is still based on religious discrimination. The Civil Registration Amendment Act discriminates between religious and secular bodies, and also between humanist and atheist bodies.

Discrimination between Religious and Secular bodies

For the purposes of marriage solemnising, religious bodies have much fewer criteria to meet in order to be registered. The only requirement for becoming a religious body that can solemnise civil marriages, is that the adherents “meet regularly for common religious worship”.

By contrast, a body can only be a secular body for the purposes of the Act if:

  • it has not fewer than 50 members
  • its principal objects are secular, ethical and humanist
  • it has been in existence for a continuous period of not less than 5 years,
  • it maintains a register of its members.
  • it does not promote a political cause.
  • it is a registered charity

None of the above applies to religious bodies. Religious bodies are not obliged to be ethical, they can promote a political cause, have less than 50 members, do not need to maintain a register of members, do not need to be in existence for five years and are not required to be a registered charity.

If you are a secular humanist body you are obliged to be ethical, but if you are a religious body you are not. The government just accepts that religions are ethical but where it comes to humanism, that is a different matter.

The State believes that marriage must be protected from humanism and therefore must ensure that secular humanist bodies are ethical. Religious bodies can solemnise marriages while including psychic mediums, people who lie to state inquiries, and debt defaulters, but secular bodies must be vetted to prove that they are ethical!

Religious bodies can promote a political cause but secular bodies cannot. This means that the Humanist Association of Ireland gave up promoting a political cause in order to solemnise marriages. They cannot now even lobby to get the Act amended to remove this religious discrimination.

Discrimination between Humanist and Atheist Bodies

According to the Act, one of the restrictions on secular bodies nominating solemnisers is that the principal objects of the body must be secular, ethical and humanist. Organisations whose principal objects are not humanist, such as Atheist Ireland and Marry Me, are not eligible because of this discrimination.

This definition, along with the other restrictions in the Act, were written with the aim of ensuring that the Humanist Association of Ireland would qualify. The original plan was to simply add the name of the Humanist Association of Ireland into the law, but that was rejected for legal reasons.

Making Profit or Gain

One area where the law does not discriminate is that neither religious nor secular solemnisers are allowed to make profit or gain from solemnising marriages. However, this legal requirement is in practice ignored, indirectly by many churches and directly by the Humanist Association of Ireland.

Section 55 of the Civil Registration Act 2004 states that:

An tArd-Chláraitheoir may cancel the registration of a person on the ground that—
(c) the person—
(ii) for the purpose of profit or gain has carried on a business of solemnising marriages,

Most religious bodies say that they do not charge for solemnising marriages but instead ask for a ‘voluntary donation.’ However, they should not be making profit from solemnising marriages, even if they do so by the traditional Irish nod and wink.

The Humanist Association of Ireland’s solemnisers directly charge for conducting marriage ceremonies. It is clearly a commercial operation. They even charge VAT. This clearly breaches the requirements of the Civil Registration Act.

Also, all income of a charity must go towards its main charitable purpose which in this case is to ‘educate about humanism’. But the HAI is deriving income from this purpose and diverting it to the private businesses of their solemnisers.

Prejudice and Religious Discrimination

Atheist Ireland believes that that Civil Registration Amendment Act 2012 is based on prejudice and religious discrimination. Article 40 of the Constitution states that:

“All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law. This shall not be held to mean that the State shall not in its enactments have due regard to difference of capacity, physical and moral, and of social function.”

The Irish State has decided that it needs to discriminate against atheists and humanists on the grounds of difference of moral capacity and social function. They have not said why this discrimination is necessary or proportionate.

The only specific reason that was given in the debate in the Dail on the Civil Registration Amendment Act was that marriage needed to be protected from Elvis impersonators. The Minister at the time Joan Burton said in the Dail:

“to ensure the institution of marriage is protected by applying a rigorous set of rules regarding the type of body that can be deemed eligible. In this regard, it is important that the criteria should be robust so that the authority to solemnise marriage would be granted only to stable, long-standing and reputable organisations…

Another concern I had about some of the material in the submission from Atheist Ireland is that we must be specific about the criteria because there are places in the United States where the criteria for solemnising are very broad and, as a result, an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas can perform wedding ceremonies. None of us wants anything like that here. There is all-party agreement on that point.”

Neither Atheist Ireland nor anybody we are aware of had raised the relevance of the type of clothes that marriage solemnisers might wear. But it seems that this is how the State justifies religious discrimination against atheists and humanist organisations. Marriage must be protected from atheists, and also from humanists who might solemnise marriages while dressed as Elvis Presley.

Atheist Ireland

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Helen O'Shaughnessy April 10, 2020

    Thanks for this, I totally agree….my question is what can be done to change this situation? I’d be very interested to hear.
    In addition, the government has totally failed all of us by allocating the responsibility of non – religious ceremonies to the HAI, a responsibility they seem totally out of their depth to deal with. The outgoing HAI president highlighted as an achievement of “10 new Celebrants” Whoop di do ! Humanist solemnising of weddings currently accounts for about only 7% of weddings in Ireland. In Scotland the figure is about 20% Given the growing appetite for non- religious ceremony in Ireland, why are there so few Humanist Celebrants available ? Why is there no established training /education programme?

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