The Civil Partnership Bill passed all stages in the Dáil last night, with no need for a division. No provision was made for a conscience clause.
Fine Gael TD Seymour Crawford (pictured) asked Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern to include such a clause, saying that under the current Bill “there is no room for conscience”.
Deputy Crawford said: “No one has the right to refuse to take part in a civil partnership ceremony. That is totally wrong.”
Minister Ahern claimed that such a clause was “not possible from a policy point of view nor, it must be said, from a practical point of view”.
Referring to the situation of registrars, Deputy Ahern said that if civil servants could opt out of the legislation on the basis of conscience “we will leave ourselves, the taxpayer and the State wide open to a claim by those who will say they have been discriminated against”.
Minister Ahern referred only to public servants and not to private individuals such as printers or photographers, or to church halls. Deputy Crawford pointed out that he had not mentioned registrars in respect of his call for a conscience amendment to the Bill.
He said that there had been a major lobby by “all the churches, from bishops to ordinary members and many others, who asked that this exemption be considered”.
He said that he had heard the concerns of “Catholic bishops, Church of Ireland, Baptist and Presbyterian ministers, and many individuals throughout the country”.
Deputy Crawford said: “I make no apology of any kind for raising the matter on their behalf. It is not only the registrar issue that worries them but other situations about which many people have been very vocal.”
Fine Gael spokesperson on marriage, Deputy Charles Flanagan, said that, while he accepted that a conscience opt-out for for civil marriage was not feasible, “there may be an issue where sacred church property is concerned, the use of which is confined to the furtherance of religion”.
Deputy Flanagan said: “If the Minister can tell me he is satisfied that the use of such property may be preserved or that there are circumstances where the use of such property might be preserved, then I will be happy.”
However, Minister Ahern did not respond on this specific point. Instead, he reiterated the suggestion that a conscience clause could lead to certain “unintended consequences”.
He said: “A court clerk might refuse to issue divorce orders because of a religious belief. A fundamentalist Christian Garda might refuse to arrest a person who is breaching a safety order on the basis that the husband is entitled to chastise his wife. A judge might refuse to register a power of attorney in favour of a person’s civil partner.
“A Muslim or a Mormon accident and emergency doctor might refuse to treat someone with alcohol poisoning. A social welfare official might refuse to pay a carer’s allowance to a person’s civil partner. A probate officer might refuse to issue a grant of administration to a deceased person’s civil partner.”
However, a number of US states have managed to craft conscience opt-out clauses to their same-sex marriage and civil union legislation.
Two senior Church of Ireland bishops presented a draft conscience clause to the Department of Justice which specifically dealt with the unintended consequences argument. It was rejected without explanation.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Ciarán Cuffe, said the Bill represented a milestone on the road to full same-sex marriage.
Minister Cuffe said: “My view and that of my party is that there should be no distinction between genders with regard to marriage.
“The final destination for me and for my party involves consenting adults having full and equal marriage rights, regardless of sexual orientation.”
In response, Mr Ahern said that, without a referendum, full same-sex marriage was impossible.