Starting on September 1, 2020, clergy in Northern Ireland can officiate same-sex weddings, if they so choose. They can also choose not to officiate such weddings, per the recently enacted Marriage and Civil Partnership (Northern Ireland) Regulations.
“In line with our calls, we are pleased that the law will protect religious freedom, and that churches will neither be compelled nor prevented from offering wedding ceremonies to same-sex couples,” Patrick Corrigan, director of Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland branch and part of the Love Equality Coalition, wrote in a statement.
The move to allow church leaders to officiate same-sex weddings follows the passing of a law in January of this year allowing for same-sex civil marriages in Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. Organizations who led the campaign to legalize same-sex wedding ceremonies in houses of worship include Amnesty International, Love Equality, and the LGBT community in Northern Ireland.
The Reverend Chris Hudson, pastor of All Souls Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, says the law is “great news for couples who wish to celebrate their marriage in church, embraced by family, friends and the love of God.”
Presbyterian Church in Ireland Will Not Be Officiating Same-Sex Weddings
However, not all clergy members and churches will be exercising their new found right to perform same-sex marriages. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), the largest Protestant denomination in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, issued a statement saying they appreciate that the new law acknowledges the church’s right not to “undertake such ceremonies.”
The new law protects religious institutions and clergy members who do not wish to perform same-sex ceremonies from legal backlash. The law states religious organizations cannot be “compelled by any means” to perform such a ceremony on their property, and that provision extends to any property a church owns, such as church halls or other buildings—not just the sanctuary.
However, PCI is concerned that these provisions do not extend to people in other institutions, such as government workers or service providers who may wish not to be involved in facilitating a same-sex marriage. Writing on behalf of PCI, the Reverend Daniel Kane said:
We therefore regret the fact that these regulations prevent local businesses, such as florists and photographers, from separating their business practices from their right to manifest their religion in practice and observance – protections provided by the European Convention on Human Rights. The same could be said of those employed by local authorities and other public bodies.
In an increasingly pluralist society, creative ways should surely be found to facilitate reasonable accommodations that properly value the role of conscience in the public square. I am thinking, for example, of a civil registrar, who may not wish to officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony. If such a case arose, surely a local council could provide alternative arrangements to protect that employee’s freedom of conscience, whilst not frustrating the legal right of individuals to avail of the new legislative provisions.
In addition to adhering to a traditional view of marriage, PCI also prohibits LGBTQ persons from becoming members of the church or baptizing their children.
Meanwhile, marriage equality advocates are still pushing the government in the U.K. to allow civil partnerships to be converted into marriages—a move they believe indicates full marriage equality between heterosexual and same-sex couples.
In the Republic of Ireland, same-sex marriage was legalized about five years earlier under the Marriage Bill 2015. That law contains a similar provision for religious bodies that do not wish to perform same-sex weddings.
Ireland, once a bastion of conservative values, has seen some dramatic changes these last several years. In 2018, for instance, voters in the Republic of Ireland decided to overturn a referendum in Ireland’s constitution that protects the life of an unborn child, thereby legalizing abortion.