By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
(Reuters) - 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 percent of Irish weddings were performed by the Catholic Church or the Church of Ireland. But by 2010 that percentage had fallen to 69 percent.
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 U.S. states.
COUPLE GAVE UP ON CATHOLICISM
Brendan Hastings, originally from South Africa, and his Irish bride Suzy Addis had Whiteside preside at their recent humanist wedding in Slane, a village north of Dublin.
Soft modern music accompanied the relaxed ceremony and the main reading was a passage on love from the 1994 novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
"Basically we are both atheists and didn't want a religious ceremony," said Hastings, at 32 a year older than Addis. "Other weddings we have gone to tended to be all about Jesus and we're not into that. We were both raised as Catholics but kind of gave it up."
Whiteside, a retired Dublin businessman, said he began presiding at humanist weddings back when they were simply a symbolic ceremony rather than the official act.
The association also offers strictly secular funerals and naming ceremonies, which have no legal status.
Being the only certified humanist celebrant for the first half of the year, Whiteside was officiating at one or two weddings per week. He was scheduled for about 90 weddings this year and about 50 in 2014.
"It became a sort of second career," he said. "I don't want to make a business out of this, but it means a lot to me."
The recent ruling means the work can now be divided among the other solemnizers - the Irish bureaucratic term for all legally recognized wedding celebrants - living in Dublin, Wicklow, Cork and Galway.
NOT FOR PROFIT
The law says solemnizers cannot work for profit. Whiteside said he usually asks 450 euros per wedding, although it might be more if long distance travel is involved.
"We don't have salaries, so we have to have some kind of income," he said, noting that priests had salaries and used their own churches for weddings.
That price is low compared to other countries. The Dutch Humanist Union sets a base price of 475 euros while rates in Germany and Austria, where humanist weddings cannot replace the official civil ceremony, go from 650 to over 1,000 euros.
Scotland legalized humanist ceremonies in 2005 and saw them jump from 100 that year to 2,846 in 2011. Humanist weddings are now the third most popular choice for Scottish couples after the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church.
(Additional reporting by Cathal MacNaughton in Dublin)