When I was in Dublin a few months ago, I met Senator Ronan Mullen, the Independent NUI senator in the Seanad. He is a man of strong Christian convictions, and I discovered that we shared a number of concerns about issues of morality that are being debated currently.
Christians in the Republic of Ireland will be interested to know that Senator Mullen plans to table some freedom of conscience amendments to the Civil Partnership Bill which is now being debated by the Seanad.
This Bill 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. 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.
My amendments would protect freedom of conscience while avoiding unintended consequences, including any obstruction of the State’s implementation of civil partnership legislation.
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.
The Minister for Justice has tried to claim that freedom of conscience
exceptions could lead to undesirable consequences. It was both 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.
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.
Christians throughout the Republic of Ireland will follow this debate with much interest.
Note: The Civil Partnership Bill has been amended in the Dáil and is now
known as the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of
Cohabitants Bill, 2009.