The Humanist Association of Ireland faces a fundamental dilemma in how it responds to the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill.
That dilemma is this: does the Humanist Association stop promoting the political cause of separation of church and state in order to be able to legally solemnise marriages, or does it forego the legal solemnising of marriages until the law is changed to provide equality for all without discrimination on the ground of religion?
This new Bill passed last week was intended to extend to secular bodies the right that religious bodies already have to legally solemnise marriages.
However, the law as passed forbids secular nominating bodies (but not religious ones) from promoting any political cause, and promoting the political cause of secularism has always been central to the work of the HAI.
Our legislators were aware of this problem, as Atheist Ireland raised it in our briefing document for them, and it was explicitly raised in the Dail debate.
Yet, as so often happens in Ireland, everyone pretended that the words were not there, or that they did not matter, or that the law would be ignored in practice, or whatever you are having yourself.
The discrimination in the law
The Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill, requires, among various rules for exclusion, that nonreligious nominating bodies can not promote a political cause. But neither this Bill nor the Principal Act applies any of these rules for exclusion to religious nominating bodies.
Furthermore, this particular exclusion seems to be a deliberate choice. The entire wording of the section on exclusions is transcribed, word for word, from the definition of “excluded body” in the Charities Act 2009, with just one difference.
The Charities Act qualifies “(b) a body that promotes a political cause,” by saying “(b) a body that promotes a political cause, unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the charitable purposes of the body.”
There is no good reason why this Bill should have removed that qualification from the definitions that it has transcribed from the Charities Act.
But more fundamentally, any restrictions, along the lines of any of the Charities Act exclusions, should either be applied equally to all nominating bodies, or else not be applied to any.
The dilemma for the HAI
It is central to the Humanist Association of Ireland that it promotes the political cause of separation of church and state. If it ceases to do so, it will become a very different organisation to the one that so many of its members have put so much work into.
So the Humanist Association of Ireland now faces the fundamental dilemma outlined earlier.
Does it stop promoting separation of church and state, in order to be able to legally solemnise marriages, or does the HAI stand alongside Atheist Ireland in continuing to campaign politically for equality before the law for all without discrimination on the ground of religion or belief?
It is unthinkable that the HAI would choose the only other available option, which is continue to promote the political cause of secularism while pretending for legal purposes that it is not doing so. Indeed, that is the type of Ireland that the Humanist Association was established to help get away from.
Whatever happens, one thing is certain. The Catholic Church will continue to promote its own political cause, built on imagined revelations from an imagined creator of the universe, and the Government will be happy to allow them to continue doing this.
It is now more important than ever before that secular bodies stand together and continue to campaign politically for separation of church and state.