Before proceeding to outline the content of the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2012, I compliment all those who worked so hard to prepare it, including various individuals and civil society groups that have advocated legislation in this area.
The Civil Registration Act 2004 provides for the notification, registration and solemnisation of marriage. Only the Health Service Executive and religious bodies can apply for registration in the Register of Solemnisers established under the Act. The Bill will amend the Act by providing for an extension to the type of organisation that can nominate marriage solemnisers to include secular bodies.
In Ireland marriage and the family unit are at the heart of the Constitution and part of our social fabric. When two people make a public commitment to each other by way of marriage, it is a cause of great celebration and an occasion on which not only do the two people wish to have their families and friends around them but also to celebrate in the belief system they hold dear. With this in mind, the Bill aims to extend the scope of marriage solemnisers across the spectrum of belief systems and formally acknowledge this in the registration system.
I propose to offer some general observations on the rationale and general principles informing the content of this amending legislation and then proceed to summarise the provisions of the Bill. The marriage provisions of the Civil Registration Act 2004 arose from recommendations of the interdepartmental committee on the reform of the marriage laws. The need for a universally applicable framework of clear and simple procedures to underpin the solemnity of the marriage contract was among the issues identified by the committee as requiring examination. The main provisions of the Act concerning marriage are: common preliminaries and a single set of documentation for all marriages; the introduction of the marriage registration form as a single licensing system; the establishment of a Register of Solemnisers; and choice of venue for civil marriages. Section 51 of the Act provides that a marriage may only be legally solemnised by a registered solemniser. Section 53 provides for the establishment of a Register of Solemnisers. Section 54 provides that a religious body or the HSE may apply to have a member of that religious body or a registrar, respectively, entered in the register.
It is clear that many citizens wish to celebrate their commitment to each other through a non-religious marriage ceremony. Of the 19,828 marriages held in 2011, almost 6,000 were civil ceremonies. This represents 29% of all marriages performed in 2011 and compares to a figure of 6% of marriages in 1996. The Bill will allow valid marriages to be performed by bodies that fulfil the criteria of a secular body as laid down in the Bill, reflecting the varied belief systems in a modern society which still holds marriage as a valuable life choice. In this regard, the Bill extends the definition of the term "body" in relation to marriages to include a "secular body". It sets out criteria which must be met by a body before it can apply to have marriages solemnised by one of its members.
While this limits somewhat the bodies that would be eligible, it respects the obligation of the State to safeguard the institution of marriage and ensures that the bodies involved have organisational stability. The body must be in existence for at least five years, be an organised group of people who have secular, ethical and humanist beliefs in common, have a minimum of 50 people and meet on a regular basis. The body must be a charity and cannot have the making of profit as one of its main purposes. In addition, a list of organisations are deemed, for the purposes of the Bill, not to be secular bodies, including chambers of commerce, organisations that are political, sporting-athletic, trade union representative in nature, and bodies that promote purposes that are unlawful, are contrary to public policy or morality, in support of terrorism or terrorist activities or for the benefit of an organisation of which membership is unlawful.
The body will be required to meet the criteria on a continuous basis and will be obliged to inform An tArd-Chláraitheoir if they cease to do so. In the event of the body not meeting all the criteria, its members will be removed from the register of solemnisers. There is scope within the Act to allow for appeals and reinstatement on the register where that is seen fit. In amending the Civil Registration Act 2004, this Bill adds in the concept of a "secular body" to those sections that had previously provided for a religious body.
I propose to summarise the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the definition of the term "Principal Act" used throughout the Bill as the Civil Registration Act 2004.
Section 2 inserts and modifies definitions in section 45 of the principal Act, to provide for the broadening of the type of bodies that can apply to have a member added to the register of solemnisers, by including secular bodies. Section 45 provides for the definitions used in Part 6 of the Civil Registration Act 2004, which relates to the amendment of the law relating to marriages. Currently, the section only provides that a religious body and the executive, that is, registrars appointed by the HSE and who are included on the register of solemnisers held in the General Register Office, can conduct valid marriage ceremonies. This amendment and the insertion of section 45(A) as provided for in section 3 will allow bodies who fulfil the criteria of a secular body as defined to conduct valid marriages.
Section 3 amends section 45 and sets out the interpretation of the definition "secular body" for the purposes of this Bill. For the purposes of this Part, a body shall be a secular body if: it has not fewer than 50 members; its principal objects are secular, ethical and humanist; members of the body meet regularly in relation to their beliefs and in furtherance of their principal objects; any rules regarding marriage, or the solemnising of marriages, do not contravene the requirements of the Act or the law; it is shown to the satisfaction of An tArd-Chláraitheoir that it has appropriate procedures around the selection, training and accreditation of solemnisers; it has been in continuous existence for at least five years; it has for at least five years an entitlement to an exemption under section 207 or 208 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997; in respect of which a number stands issued by the Revenue Commissioners for the purpose of that exemption and that number stood issued for a continuous period of five years immediately preceding the date of its most recent application; does not have the making of profit as one of its principal objects; and maintains a register of members.
In addition, this section provides for a list of bodies which are deemed not to be secular bodies for the purposes of this Part. These are as follows: a political party, or a body that promotes a political party or candidate; a body that promotes a political cause; an approved body of persons within the meaning of section 235 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997; a trade union or a representative body of employers; a chamber of commerce; and a body that promotes purposes that are unlawful, contrary to public morality, contrary to public policy, in support of terrorism or terrorist activities, whether in the State or outside the State or for the benefit of an organisation membership of which is unlawful.
Section 4 provides for the amendment of section 51(3) of the principal Act to include solemnisers from secular bodies in the requirements to be met for a valid solemnisation of marriage. Section 51 provides that a marriage may only be legally solemnised by a registered solemniser. It sets out the elements required to be met so that a valid marriage takes place.
Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 53(4) of the principal Act to allow An tArd-Chláraitheoir refuse to register a person if he or she considers that the body concerned is not a secular body. Section 53 provides for the establishment of a Register of Solemnisers to be maintained by An tArd-Chláraitheoir. The register holds the names of all solemnisers who have been approved to conduct valid marriages and is open to inspection by the public.
Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 54 of the principal Act to include secular bodies in the categories of bodies that may apply for registration of persons on the register of solemnisers. An officer of the secular body must sign a certificate to the effect that, in their opinion, the nominated person is a fit and proper person to solemnise a marriage and confirm that the nominee has been selected, trained and accredited by the secular body in accordance with its procedures. The section also sets out procedures related to requesting additional information from bodies regarding an application on behalf of a member to become a registered solemniser.
Section 7 provides for the amendment of section 55 of the principal Act to include the cessation of a body as a religious or secular body as a reason the registration of a person may be cancelled on the register of solemnisers. Section 55 provides for the cancellation of the registration of a registered solemniser by An tArd-Chláraitheoir on a number of grounds, including a request for cancellation or that the marriage ceremony does not adhere to the necessary declarations. A registration may also be cancelled if the registered solemniser is convicted of an offence under the Act, carries on a business solemnising marriage for profit or gain, is not a fit and proper person to solemnise marriages or for any other reason. Section 55 sets out the requirements for An tArd-Chláraitheoir if he or she intends to cancel a registration. The amendment provides an inclusion of secular bodies in order that their registration may be cancelled under the same criteria, if required.
Section 8 provides for the amendment of section 56 of the principal Act to include secular bodies in the provisions to appeal against refusals or cancellations of registration in the register of solemnisers. Section 56 of the principal Act provides for leave to appeal to the Circuit Court if the Minister dismisses an appeal on the grounds that the body has ceased to be a religious body. This section provides the same appeal rights to a secular body. If the Minister dismisses an appeal on any other ground, a party to the appeal may appeal against the dismissal on a point of law to the Circuit Court. This section provides the same appeal rights to a secular body or to a party to the appeal who is not a member of a secular body.
Section 9 provides for the amendment of section 57 of the principal Act to allow for the granting of temporary authorisation to solemnise marriage to solemnisers from secular bodies. Section 57 provides for the temporary authorisation of members of a religious body to solemnise marriage.
An application made by a secular body under this section will be in such form and containing such particulars as may be determined by An tArd-Chláraitheoir. It must be made by an officer of the body. The certificate must be furnished in a satisfactory form stating that the person to be temporarily authorised is suitably trained and accredited as set out in section 45A(1)(e) and, in the opinion of that officer, is a fit and proper person to solemnise a marriage.
In addition, this section will provide for An tArd-Chláraitheoir to request further information on applications for temporary solemnisers from a religious or secular body. Currently, there is no provision for An tArd-Chláraitheoir to request additional information from religious bodies and this amendment will provide for such a request.
Section 10 provides for the Short Title, collective citations, construction and any necessary commencements. This Bill represents a significant and important change to the Civil Registration Act 2004, which sees us, as a nation, recognise the increasing desire of people to celebrate marriage in a way that can include their own secular, ethical and humanist beliefs. Marriage is an important institution and this Bill enhances its role both in Irish and English law.
I congratulate Senator Bacik who I know has worked on the Bill over a long period. It took some time to deal with all the detailed and legal considerations as Members will have heard in the descriptions of the sections. I have just come from DCU where I listened to the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. She spoke about the requirements of politicians to be both idealistic and realistic. Framing this proposal to meet the wishes of the humanist community in Ireland was a political act of idealism and vision. The slow boring of hard boards in the Office of the Attorney General brings that vision of change to fruition. We now have a Bill. I hope the people who will take on the role of solemnisers will have many successful, happy and fruitful weddings, which they will be in a position to celebrate as befits the humanist community in Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House.