The controversial Irish civil partnership bill has been signed into law by President Mary McAleese, exposing registrars to a fine and/or prison if they refuse to participate.
However the Bill’s passage through the Irish Parliament has been shrouded by controversy, and repeated calls for a conscience clause have been rejected.
The new legislation goes even further than existing UK civil partnership legislation as it lays out fines of up to €2,000 and/or up to a six month jail term for those who flout it.
The legislation, entitled the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, had already been passed by Ireland’s lower house without a vote and was later approved by Ireland’s Senate.
The signing, which took place earlier this week, means the Bill has now become law, although press reports indicate it will be early next year before the legislation is enacted and the first civil partnerships take place.
Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern described the Act as “one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation to be enacted since independence” and “the epitome of a Christian and pluralist society.”
However, during earlier debates Senator Jim Walsh expressed concern 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.”
His concerns were echoed by Senator John Paul Phelan, from the opposition party Fine Gael, who added that: “Criminalising registrars for non-performance of their function is not a correct step in any legislation.”
During the legislation’s passage through the Irish Senate further controversy was aroused when Donie Cassidy, the leader of the Senate, employed a rarely used guillotine motion to curtail the debate in the upper house on just its second day, prohibiting more thorough scrutiny.
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 and that the new law will “greatly undermine the special status accorded to marriage.”
The Act also provides additional rights for other cohabiting couples including a redress scheme for financially dependent long-term cohabitants on the end of a relationship.