Northern Ireland’s Bishops Seek Government Ban on Priests Celebrating LGBTQ Weddings

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh

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

5 replies
  1. Hugh McSheffrey
    Hugh McSheffrey says:

    The problem that the Church faces in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is that a priest officiating at a wedding is wearing two hats: that of a priest officiating at a sacrament and that of a civil marriage commissioner (who certifies the marriage for such uses as the state requires by statute). If the Catholic clergy relinquished their status as civil commissioners, heterosexual couples wanting the sacrament of matrimony would arrange that service, and the couple would normally also attend on a civil marriage commissioner to formalise their union in compliance with civil statutes.
    Same-sex couples could marry before a civil commissioner; and might request a priest to bless their union. One day, same sex couples will be able to receive the sacrament.

    • Francis Gallant
      Francis Gallant says:

      I don’t see any reason why a religious clergy person should be able to keep their license to marry people if they can’t accept marrying what the law of the country allows. The fact is, they are breaking the law and should have their license revoked.

  2. Anton
    Anton says:

    Looks as though history is being reversed. For centuries the Church has fought what it called “caesaropapism” – the State interfering in matters of the Church. Beckett lost his life over that. And now the bishops are begging the civil government to step in with drawn swords to interfere in controlling the clergy? The ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the couple and not the priest or the justice of the peace. And who is anyone to limit whom God blesses: “Your ways are not my ways, says the Lord”.

  3. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    Funny how religious freedom does not allow for some to act freely. If some priest wants to officiate at an LGBTQ wedding, he is apparently not free to do so. In the light of pandemic, death and economic collapse, how is this relevant ?

  4. Edward Andrews
    Edward Andrews says:

    The Church is perfectly entitled to constrain one of its operatives from doing something which is illegal according to its own discipline.
    The state should refrain from forcing people to do things against their conscience.
    What the Church is not entitled to do is to ask the state to underwrite its code of discipline.
    The rest of the debate is simply a discussion round the houses.
    If I decide to disregard the discipline of my Church and do something which I am expressly forbidden to do by Church discipline I am of course open to be disciplined by that Church. What they cannot do is to invoke the support of the state. That use to be the kind of things which the Church had in Fascist countries with Concordats.
    Perhaps it is memories of this which is stirring in the breasts of the Irish Prelates, who representing a body which is institutionally rejected by the people of Ireland (though there is still an emotional attachment to ritual and rites of passage), would like to get back to the days when the Archbishop would have a part to play in the writing of the Constitution and where civil law reflected the more draconian side of the Church’s moral teaching while ignoring questions like justice.
    Well you can’t put the clock back. Ireland is in political turmoil and what a bunch of elderly celebrates who have picked up the reins after the history of the Church in post 1920 Ireland can best do is to seek to follow the general line of the Pope who might just get the show back on the right road.


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