Irish Senators have spoken out strongly against a Civil Partnership Bill which could see registrars sent to prison if they refuse to carry out same-sex civil partnerships.
The Irish Bill goes even further than 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.
Many have already called for a conscience clause to be included in the legislation but have been opposed by the Irish Justice Minister, Dermot Ahern.
During a Senate debate, politicians called for freedom for those who have an objection to the legislation.
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.”
Responding to the penalties laid out in the Bill for those who flout it, Senator O’Murchu said: “I do not think it is right that people who in good conscience believe they are upholding the same values should be subject to such a penal code.”
Senator John Hanafin said he wanted a referendum on the legislation.
Mr Hanafin, from the Fianna Fail party which is in a coalition Government with the Greens, also asked whether the public wanted “a situation whereby a same-sex, sexual relationship has a higher standing in law than that of brothers, sisters, brothers and sisters or friends who live together in an ordinary way?”
Roman Catholic bishops have again criticised the legislation in a statement following their annual summer meeting.
It said: “The current Bill, by exposing Civil Registrars to a fine and/or imprisonment should they act in accordance with their conscience on the matter of same-sex unions, undermines this cherished principle of a free and diverse society and imposes unjust limits on the ‘freedom of conscience and free expression and practice of religion’ guaranteed to every citizen” in the Irish constitution.
Last month a group of 19 church leaders wrote to The Irish Times saying that the Civil Partnership Bill is a “direct attack” on freedom of conscience and religion.
They commented that their concerns were based on “sincerely held religious convictions”, and called on Ireland’s Justice Minister, Dermot Ahern, to allow for freedom of conscience in the Bill.
In January Mr Ahern said there would be no conscience clause in the Bill.
Commentator David Quinn has also attacked the legislation, saying the law would “greatly undermine the special status accorded to marriage”.
Mr Quinn wrote: “Marriage gains its special status by receiving special treatment in the form of rights and benefits unique to it.
“Why is it treated uniquely? Because it is unique. Out of all the myriad forms of relationships that people can form, only it can provide a child with a mother and a father who have made a formal, public commitment to one another.”