Proposed law will not compel NI ministers to provide same-sex marriage

It will not be possible to compel churches or individual ministers in Northern Ireland to provide same-sex marriage, under proposals published by the British Government for consultation.

The ceremony has been legalised and from this month couples were able to register to marry, meaning the first ceremonies will take place in February.

For couples who are already married, their status is now legally recognised.

Those who are already in a civil partnership were initially unable to convert it to a marriage.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has begun a consultation on changing civil partnerships to marriage and the role of churches. Many of the proposals are drawn from existing practice in England, Scotland or Wales.

It said: “It will not be possible to compel any person to be registered by the registrar general as empowered to solemnise same-sex religious marriages; apply for a temporary authorisation to solemnise one or more same-sex religious marriages.

“It will not be possible to compel an officiant to solemnise marriages of same-sex couples, where the reason for the officiant not wishing to solemnise the marriage is because it is a marriage of a same-sex couple.”

Same-sex marriage campaigners have called for the law in Northern Ireland to be updated to allow weddings in churches and for the conversion of civil partnerships to marriages.

The NIO document added: “It will not be possible to compel religious bodies (or persons acting on their behalf or under their auspices) to apply to the registrar general for a member to be registered as empowered to solemnise same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland; give consent to same-sex marriage; or provide, arrange, facilitate or participate in, or be present at the solemnisation of a same-sex marriage.”

Individuals will be bound by the decisions of governing authorities of churches on whether to permit same-sex ceremonies under the consultation.

The Rev Chris Hudson – minister of All Souls Church in Belfast, and a member of the Non-Subscribing Church of Ireland – says his counterparts in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland can already officiate same-sex weddings and he wants the same freedom of religion in Northern Ireland.

“There should be legally protected freedom of religion for those churches who want to offer weddings to same-sex couples, as well as to those who do not wish to provide this service to their LGBT+ believers.

“In Northern Ireland, that is a legal right which is currently denied to churches, ministers like me and same-sex couples of faith, who want to conduct their wedding in a religious setting. The Government must address this clear inequality without further delay.”

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland director at Amnesty International, said freedom of religion is an important human right.

He added: “If a church wishes to offer weddings to same-sex couples of faith, then the law should not get in the way.

“Equally, those churches which do not wish to offer such weddings should face no compulsion to do so – that should simply be a matter for internal debate and decision within the particular faith.”

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