Independent Senator Ronan Mullen is to table amendments to the Civil Partnership Bill, to protect freedom of conscience for people with religious and ethical concerns around civil partnership on Wednesday.
Last week the Dáil passed all stages of the Bill without a vote. The Seanad cannot prevent the Bill from passing into law, but can suggest amendments, and in certain cases delay passage.
In a statement released today, Senator Mullen said the Bill as currently worded “would penalise, and in some cases criminalise, photographers, printers, managers of parish halls or registrars who might, on conscience grounds, not wish to facilitate civil partnership events”.
He said: “This attacks the freedom of conscience of those who believe in traditional morality and in marriage between a man and a woman as the bedrock of society.
“In a pluralist society there will be different viewpoints on many ethical issues including the morality of homosexual relationships and the extent to which the State should protect the institution of marriage. It is one thing for citizens to disagree on these matters. It is another thing to use the overwhelming force of the law to punish certain citizens because their beliefs differ from the new State-sponsored outlook.”
In the Dáil, Fine Gael TD Seymour Crawford again called for a conscience clause, but this was rejected by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern.
Minister Ahern 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.”
Responding to this argument, Senator Mullen said that the Minister had been “needlessly offensive and inaccurate to invoke the ‘fundamentalist Christian garda’ who might refuse to arrest a person breaching a safety order because he believed that a husband was entitled to beat his wife”.
“Such weak arguments hide the fact that our existing equality legislation contains many sensible, carefully-crafted, exceptions which are not abused,” he added.
He said that his amendments would “protect freedom of conscience while avoiding unintended consequences, including any obstruction of the State’s implementation of civil partnership legislation”.
Senator Mullen argued that, without freedom of conscience amendments, the Civil Partnership Bill may be unconstitutional, given Bunreacht na hÉireann’s strong protection for the practice of religion and the rights of religious institutions.
“Article 44.2 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and Article 44.5 provides that every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs. It is interesting to note that in 1997, the Supreme Court regarded Section 37 of the Employment Equality Bill, which allows religious employers to take action which is reasonably necessary to prevent the undermining of their religious ethos, as necessary to the Bill’s constitutionality. A similar exemption is needed now.”
Senator Mullen will also table amendments to tackle a new form of discrimination introduced by the Civil Partnership Bill.
“The Bill as it stands discriminates against mutually dependent adults in non-sexual relationships, such as carers and siblings, by not providing them with any of the rights and entitlements of would-be civil partners or cohabitees. There is no objective justification for this. My amendments will seek to equalise the rights of all mutually-dependent couples while ensuring the special status of marriage remains intact.”