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Partnership is a civil entity – not a religious one

Resource type: News

The Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

TOMORROW IS an important day for civil rights in Ireland. TDs will vote on a vital piece of legislation, which will move our society towards a place of greater equality and fairness.

The Civil Partnership Bill will allow adults in same-sex relationships, who so choose, to have their relationships recognised by civil law, and will extend protection to same-sex couples in areas such as the couple’s shared home, succession, pensions, taxation, domestic violence, residential tenancies, next of kin, social welfare and immigration.

This is a groundbreaking move for Ireland and a major step in the right direction towards full equality for lesbian and gay couples. This is the right thing to do, and is long overdue.

Irish people have been considering the issue of legal recognition of same-sex couples and families for almost a decade, and numerous opinion polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of us (up to 84 per cent) are in favour of allowing same-sex couples to marry or form civil partnerships. The recognition of same-sex partnerships also enjoys cross-party support in both houses of the Oireachtas.

Representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, including on this page yesterday Fr Vincent Twomey, have declared themselves to be strongly opposed to the Civil Partnership Bill, because they say they believe it undermines marriage. They have also stated that the Bill is an attack on the free practice of religion. However, their fears are unfounded.

A civil partnership is a civil event, not a religious one. Nothing in the Civil Partnership Bill will change how different religions govern their own rules and regulations with regard to marriage. What will change is that civil law – the law of the land which exists for people of all religions and of none – will allow adults to have their relationships recognised.

The Catholic bishops say that public servants should be given an “opt-out” from performing a civil partnership in cases where it contravenes their religious beliefs. Such an opt-out would, however, seriously diminish the rights enjoyed by every person in this State.

Where would we draw the line between the personal religious beliefs of public servants and their responsibilities to uphold civil law and to carry out their duties?

Would a public servant be allowed to refuse to marry someone of a different religion or race? How would individuals’ rights under civil law to access divorce or contraception be affected, if these matters conflicted with the personal religious beliefs of the public servant they were dealing with?

The opt-out called for by the Catholic bishops would be a licence to discriminate, and would significantly undermine the existing equality legislation. This would set a very dangerous precedent for the curtailment of individual freedoms and rights in Ireland.

By the way, it is important to say that public servants’ representatives are not calling for this opt-out. Indeed, the public service unions are supportive of this civil partnership legislation and see it as a positive step forward towards equality.

In 2002 the Equality Authority called for equal access to civil marriage, and for equality in other relevant areas of family law, for same-sex couples. This remains our goal. Since then, we have repeatedly supported moves towards equality for gay and lesbian couples.

The position of the Equality Authority is that civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples is the full equality solution, but we welcome the Civil Partnership Bill as it will provide immediate legal solutions to the many urgent and pressing problems which gay and lesbian couples face in the absence of legal recognition of their relationships.

While this legislation is a major step forward, the rights of children of same-sex couples still need to be addressed. Because the proposed legislation has remained silent on the question of the children of same-sex couples, these children will continue to face questions regarding inheritance, guardianship and access, and will remain disadvantaged when compared with other children, including the stepchildren of a civil marriage.

The Equality Authority has submitted its views on this matter to the Law Reform Commission, and would hope that this will be addressed as a matter of urgency by the Oireachtas.

The recognition of same-sex partnerships enjoys cross-party support in both houses of the Oireachtas. The speeches in the second stage debates showed how far we have moved as a democratic society, in recognising diversity and promoting equality, as reflected in the opinion polls which show that the vast majority of us want to see essential fairness for same-sex couples.

When the Catholic bishops oppose the Civil Partnership Bill, the words of George Orwell on equality come to mind – all are equal, but some are more equal than others.

In opposing the Bill and in calling for an opt-out clause, the bishops are promoting discrimination in the delivery of public services to our children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, relatives, friends and neighbours.

We live in a democratic republic, where issues of church and state must be independent. In these most challenging times, the principles of democracy and equality must be upheld to ensure a fair, just and caring society for all of us.