IRELAND - Traditionally Catholic Ireland has allowed an atheist group to perform weddings this year for the first time, and the few people certified to celebrate them are overwhelmed by hundreds of couples seeking their services.
Demand for the Humanist Association of Ireland's secular weddings has surged as the moral authority of the once almighty Catholic Church collapsed in recent decades amid sex abuse scandals and Irish society's rapid secularization.
Until now, those who did not want a religious wedding could have only civil ceremonies. Outside of the registrar's office, only clergy were permitted to perform weddings.
But statistics show rising demand for non-Church weddings. In 1996, 90 per cent of Irish weddings were performed by the Catholic Church or the Church of Ireland. But by 2010 that percentage had fallen to 69 per cent.
The pent-up demand from those who want more than a civil ceremony in a registry office but reject a religious wedding has created a major backlog for the humanist group's ceremonies director.
Brian Whiteside, initially the only humanist "solemnizer" certified to legally marry couples, was already booked well into next year when the civil registry office agreed in late June to approve 10 others, taking some of the pressure off him.
"It remains very, very busy," Whiteside said. "We're all finding it difficult to keep up with the inquiries. We had 595 new inquiries in the first three months of this year, which in a little country like Ireland is quite a few."
The Irish parliament legalized secular wedding services last December, after a 10-year campaign by the Humanist Association. The law went into effect on January 1. Similar options are also allowed in Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland and some US states.