Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland are supporting proposals that would institute a government ban on religious leaders performing same-gender marriages if their faith group does not permit them. Additionally, the proposals would implement wide religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
The bishops have resisted marriage equality for years, and they said that the United Kingdom’s Parliament had “hijacked” the law which legalized same-gender marriages. The bishops’ latest comments were made during a ‘consultation,’ or public comment period, on a bill relating to religious marriages. Crux reported the bishops supported three provisions in the law:
– officiants will only be able to solemnize same-sex religious marriage if the governing authority of the religious body they belong to has given its written consent to same-sex marriage.
– the legislation will make clear that religious bodies (and individual officiants) cannot be compelled by any means, including by the enforcement of a contract or a statutory or other legal requirement, to perform same-sex marriages or otherwise be involved in same-sex marriages.
– there will be equality law protections so that religious bodies and individual officiants do not unlawfully discriminate if they refuse to solemnize marriages because of the sex or sexual orientation of the couple.”
“The bishops also supported sections of the law that said discussion or criticism of same-sex marriage will not of itself be a legal offence and ‘that people remain free to express views, including critical views, about same-sex “marriage”, so long as this is not done in a threatening, abusive or insulting way and is not intended to stir up hatred or arouse fear.'”
Bishops often seek religious exemptions when marriage equality becomes law in their region, usually just to prevent the church from being legally required to perform same-gender religious ceremonies. The merits of such exemptions are debatable, but could be reasonable if properly constructed. Legislators should reject the bishops’ proposal because it would also allow civil officiants to discriminate, based on their religious beliefs, against lesbian and gay couples.
The prelates of Northern Ireland have gone further, however, indeed to an extreme, in asking civil authorities to enforce the church’s teachings. If their suggestions become law, a Catholic priest who chooses to perform a same-gender ceremony, perhaps in a private capacity, could not legally solemnize the marriage. If a priest were to do so, it is within the church’s authority to discipline him according to canon law, even if doing so contradicts wider tenets of justice. But the state should have no role in policing the priest’s actions if they are not criminal or civil violations. A priest, imam, or rabbi should have as much right to perform a marriage ceremony as any other citizen, regardless of whether there are religious aspects included or not. Foremost, couples should be able to celebrate their weddings freely. Northern Ireland’s bishops have overreached, and legislators should be cautious adopting any proposals that border on theocracy.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 19, 2020