Last night Irish politicians in the Dáil passed a controversial civil partnership bill which will leave registrars open to a fine and prison sentence for refusing to carry out same-sex civil partnerships.
The Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill, as it is now called, was passed by TDs in the Dáil, the lower house of representatives, without a vote.
The Senate, Ireland’s upper house, must pass the legislation before it can become law.
The Bill goes even further than existing UK legislation on civil partnerships as it lays out fines of up to €2,000 and/or up to a six month jail term for those who flout it.
In the debate opposition TD Seymour Crawford said many groups had appealed to him for a conscience clause: “I may be the only Deputy who got this material but I assure the House I got it from Catholic bishops, Church of Ireland, Baptist and Presbyterian ministers, and many individuals throughout the country.
“I make no apology of any kind for raising the matter on their behalf.”
Justice spokesman for opposition party Fine Gael, Charles Flanagan, who has previously criticised inserting a conscience clause, said backbenchers in his party had expressed concern.
Mr Flanagan said: “Many of them are genuine in their belief that an appropriate amendment to protect freedom of conscience and religion might be incorporated in the legislation.”
But the Irish Justice Minister, Dermot Ahern, who has consistently ruled out inserting a conscience clause, claimed: “There has been no representation or indication of any kind regarding the freedom of conscience issue; rather there has been a positive view from people of what we are doing in this regard.”
Mr Ahern later acknowledged that representations had been made, but said that registrars did not want a conscience clause.
He also commented: “I say, resolutely, to people who suggest there should be a freedom of conscience clause, that if we pass laws in this House we expect them to be implemented.
“If we allow a situation where people can adopt an à la carte approach to implementing the law on behalf of the Legislature we will leave ourselves, the taxpayer and the State wide open to a claim by those who will say they have been discriminated against because an official – in this case a registrar – may, for religious reasons, have refused them service.”
During a recent debate on the Bill in the Irish Senate, a number of Senators criticised the proposals.
Senator Jim Walsh said that the lack of a conscience clause will move the country “to a totalitarian society which certainly many of us, particularly liberals, would argue against if it were impinging upon their beliefs”.
Senator John Paul Phelan, from the opposition party Fine Gael, said: “Criminalising registrars for non-performance of their function is not a correct step in any legislation.”
In May a group of 19 church leaders wrote to the Irish Times declaring that the Civil Partnership Bill was a “direct attack” on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
In March Roman Catholic bishops criticised the legislation, warning that it “represents a fundamental revolution in our understanding of marriage and the family and cannot go unchallenged”.
David Quinn, a commentator writing in the Irish Independent, said Christians’ views on the Bill were being ignored.