Independent Trinity Senator Shane Ross has become the latest high profile politician to call for a free vote on the Government's Civil Partnership Bill.
Speaking during the Order of Business on Tuesday, Senator Ross, a member of the Church of Ireland, said that, given that the Bill was of “deep concern and a conscientious concern” to Senators “it would be appropriate that the Bill should go to a free vote rather than a party vote”.
He added that it had been a long time “if ever, since the Seanad has been allowed a free vote on an issue of this sort but the Government is not threatened by it”.
Senator Ross said: “Even if that Bill was defeated or amended there would be no threat to the Government and the Bill itself might be improved.”
Senator Ross, taking up a point made by Independent Senator Ronan Mullen also defended the right of the Catholic bishops to contribute to public debate.
His comments came after Minister for Environment, John Gormley said that the bishops should “not intrude on temporal or State matters”.
Senator Ross said that it was “important that those of us who do not necessarily agree with the views expressed by those in the hierarchy should defend their right to state them”.
He added that it was wrong to say that the bishops “should keep their mouths shut because we do not like what they say”.
Senator Ross said: “We should let the message go out from this House that even if these people express views of which we do not approve, the House approves their right to voice them.
“No group, whether the Roman Catholic church or any group especially unpopular at the moment for other reasons, should be suppressed or silenced in their views.
“All lobby groups and individuals have a right to an opinion, even if we do not share it. That should go out, as Senator Ó Murchú stated, whether we are referring to the Protestant or Catholic bishops. Let us hear and respect what they have to say.”
Senator Mullen said that many had expressed disquiet at Minister Gormley's comments on the rights of church leaders to comment on legislation, and asked the Green Party Senators to mention this to him.
Senator Mullen added that he was disappointed at the Minister’s comments and believe they reflect a failure to understand the views of all groups within civic society must be welcomed.
He said that, as a minister, Mr Gormley “should welcome the participation of all groups in the debate”.
He added: “Since I have no doubt he would not object to church pronouncements in support of environmental protection, I can only conclude it was a cheap shot given the perceived weakness of the church at the moment.”
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú added his support to Senator Mullen on the same point, and added that the point also applied to other Churches, pointing out that certain Church of Ireland bishops had been “very much to the fore on the issue”.
He called on the Leader of the Seanad to acknowledge the importance of “upholding the right of free speech of churches, groups and individuals and to interact with any debate on any legislation in the State”.
“If we suggest in some way that it is not politically correct to do so then what we have is a dictatorship in disguise,” Senator Ó'Murchú said.
Senator John Hanafin called for a debate on freedom of conscience and added that it was “incredible that in this day and age people would not understand that not only does the hierarchy have a right to speak out but the hierarchy of the churches has a duty to speak out on the gospels”.
The Leader of the Seanad, Senator Donie Cassidy, referring to the statements by Senators Ross, Mullen, Hanafin and Ó'Murchú said that he fully supported "their strong views on free speech" and their defence the right of church leaders to express their views.