Imre Sooäär: It is time for a social contract on partnership

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Imre Sooäär. Source: Private collection

The Riigikogu will have to ensure legal certainty and security for all families that can only be done by passing the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act or through the compromise tabled by 19 MPs last week, Imre Sooäär writes.

The calm after a storm is a self-regulation mechanism in nature and should be in society. It seems the public has been sent false signals that need to be sorted out. The turbulence and pace of events last week is affecting communication. There were times when the situation changed in minutes, not days. That is why we need clarification, to restore the timeline and finally reconcile all sides.

Days following the marriage referendum debate seem to have been guided by an invisible hand that succeeded in keeping the people riled up by suggesting a new bill aiming for marriage equality was introduced in the Riigikogu after the marriage referendum failed. That is completely untrue. However, let us start from the beginning.

Restoring the timeline

A week ago, the Riigikogu had hit a wall with the marriage referendum that prompted a group of MPs from different parties to put together a bill for amending the Family Act to propose a compromise and help the Riigikogu escape the deadlock.

Press coverage at times made it look like a new bill had been entered into proceedings after the prime minister's resignation. That was not the case. However, let us be kind and say that perhaps this is not a hostile spin but simply a misunderstanding as everything happened very fast and people had trouble keeping track of it all. Let us restore the timeline.

The bill in question was handed over to the Riigikogu before the marriage referendum vote and before the government fell, back when no one knew how all of it would end. It is clear this also escaped Indrek Kiisler who wrote on ERR online that "one does not brandish fists after the fight is over" to suggest someone had. The public swallowed the misleading bait, as did Archbishop Urmas Viilma of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK).

Many people do not know that it can take days to analyze a bill and its technical suitability before the Board of the Riigikogu decides to enter it into proceedings. That is what happened with this bill.

I was completely baffled after reading Postimees' initial headline of "Social Democrats and Center introduce bill to equate registered partnership with marriage." Where did they get that from? Have Center and SDE put forward another bill? Every single fact in the headline was wrong.

The two parties or their Riigikogu factions have not introduced any bill. I am not a member of any party, while I am among those who did. It was a supraparty initiative for which we started collecting signatures in good faith on Monday morning or three days before the government fell, with the purpose of helping the Riigikogu escape the deadlock and offering a compromise.

The bill was finally put forward by 19 MPs who did not include all Center or SDE members. We presented it to the Riigikogu as a sincere attempt to offer up a solution before the marriage referendum endgame. We wanted to leave MPs as much time as possible to join the initiative. Some joined immediately before the bill was entered into proceedings.

Many MPs were reluctant to participate as proposing members in connection with the prime minister's resignation, while they found the bill sensible and 55 MPs or the Riigikogu majority promised to support the initiative verbally.

Talk of gay marriage a conscious lie spread by opponents

The bill did not equate registered partnership to marriage – another erroneous claim in the press headline. It is nothing more than what the Registered Partnership Act already provides. Of course, the devil is always in the details. The bill includes clear differences that do not result in equality of marriage and registered partnership.

Marriage will remain a union between a man and a woman and nothing about that will be changed. Registered partnership will not be equated to marriage as there will be clear differences. The legal concept of partnership will not gain anything the current Registered Partnership Act does not already provide. There will even be an additional limitation that the current law does not include. All current limitations on registered partnerships would remain in force.

For example, the restriction on adoption. The bill's explanatory memo reads: The law subjects registered partnership contracts to broadly the same rights and obligations valid in the case of marriage. The Registered Partnership Act largely provides the same, while clear differences remain.

A single additional limitation was added as a concession to the church. It would be impossible to enter into registered partnerships ecclesiastically as the church as an independent organization does not support same-sex cohabitation. If the church should ever change its stance, the law would be open to amendment.

Therefore, traditional Christian marriage will remain a union exclusively between a man and a woman that can be registered both ecclesiastically and secularly. A registered partnership agreement is just a legal contract for ensuring families legal protection and cannot be entered into ecclesiastically. One needs to turn to a notary. Where in this lies marriage equality toted by the misleading headline?

To put it simply, it would effectively mean passing the Registered Partnership Act provisions inside the framework of the Family Act. Nothing more. We would no longer need the Registered Partnership Act or its implementing provisions, while nothing would change in terms of current legislation except brining the concept of registered partnership under the Family Act with the same rights and obligations as currently.

A registered partnership agreement can be used by homosexual and heterosexual couples or simply two people living together (if they are not close relatives) to have preliminary legal protection. Heterosexual couples can get married at a later time that will automatically end their registered partnership. This would allow couples to have legal protection during the so-called engagement period when people develop new obligations and responsibilities, while they are still considering whether to get married.

A same-sex couple cannot get married. Therefore, talk of gay marriage in this context is a conscious lie spread by opponents. The bill does not provide for that.

Long road to marriage equality

Archbishop Urmas Viilma proposed giving same-sex couples legal protection in a Christmas message from a few years ago. He told ERR in an interview that same-sex couples could have legal protection if legal certainty is guaranteed for traditional marriage.

That is precisely what this bill aims to do – allow traditional Christian marriage to continue in all its historical glory, just as it remains valid today, and offer secular legal protection for all families at the same time.

Archbishop Viilma and I discussed the situation on Sunday and agreed that it would be sensible to hold a public roundtable discussion in the Riigikogu before processing the bill that would see participation from representatives of the church, experts and scientists, as well as heads of political parties. This council could propose ways of finding a solution that could calm, soothe and unite society with the aim of finally burying the hatchet.

Urmas Viilma has agreed to take part as has Liia Hänni, member of the Estonian Constitutional Assembly, who has actively spoken up on the subject in the media. I stand ready to convene the roundtable at the first opportunity in the name of the bill's initiators.

Giving all kinds of families protection under the Family Act is supported by 87 percent of voting-age citizens, according to a Norstat poll from late December. This means the bill would not clash with the will of the people. Support for passing the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act stands at 75 percent, while that piece of legislation has a thorny past and rubbing salt in those wounds would not be sensible.

Isamaa's Parempoolsed group has also promised to support the supraparty initiative. My good colleague from the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Mihhail Lotman told me he is behind the bill, while he also feels that same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt.

I completely agree with Mihhail, while all of these conditions could be discussed in the course of Riigikogu proceedings. Why not if the majority is behind them? No Isamaa member is in favor of returning to the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act as time has left its seal on it and it makes no sense to unearth old emotions. One of the leading members of the non-parliamentary Eesti 200 party Margus Tsahkna has signaled as much, saying that the party would not be satisfied with the implementing provisions.

I agree that since the Registered Partnership Act has remained without the provisions for six years, it should be repealed. It played a role in rendering Estonia more open, while it has become outdated and we should not turn back the clock by six years.

Instead of copying the Family Act in the Registered Partnership Act and its implementing provisions, we should admit that we have different family models, that they all need protection and that all of these aspects can be regulated in the Family Act.

That is precisely what the compromise bill aims to achieve. It repeals the Registered Partnership Act and brings all of the aspects therein under the Family Act while retaining traditional marriage in its current form. Existing registered partnerships would also be brought under the Family Act. There is still a long road from here to marriage equality should future compositions of the Riigikogu be inclined to seek it.

That is the situation today. Unfortunately, respected opinion leaders have been known to fall victim to headlines and media tends to run away with information ripped out of context.

Peace needed above all

Of course, what we need now is peace. I am all for it and I ask the same from the incoming opposition instead of a declaration of war in promises to "bury the Riigikogu under obstruction" as put by Martin Helme.

Splitting and riling up the people on the topic of families must end! We need to address a healthcare and economic crisis. However, one cannot achieve peace by ripping open old wounds. The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) wants to keep the matter in focus and maintain a conflict provided we cannot find a roadmap for a solution.

Same-sex marriage used to be a major part of the campaign to divide the people in the USA during past presidential elections. The topic has disappeared since the Supreme Court decided to legalize gay marriage.

No one talked about it during the recent presidential elections. The problem had been solved and forgotten. The proposed compromise would help ensure peace and security to all Estonian families. Otherwise, we will remain in the Eastern Bloc paradigm where same-sex couples are persecuted and where an opposition leader fresh back from Berlin was just handcuffed on the border without allowing him to so much as see his family.

I am glad the referendum bill moved through the Riigikogu and was put to a vote as it reflects where the Riigikogu stands in 2021. The parliament decided with 49 votes for and 28 against to reject the marriage referendum. Period.

In the interests of clarity – I voted against holding the referendum as I promised upon joining the Riigikogu. The rest of the Center Party faction abstained from voting to ease tensions. No one was coerced to vote either way.

All families need legal certainty and security. That problem was not solved by fighting a dramatic battle in the Riigikogu. Instead, the fight revolved around an absurd question akin to asking whether a circle should be round. Of course it should as no one is looking to change the definition. Definitely not the current composition of the Riigikogu.

The Riigikogu will have to ensure legal certainty and security for all families that can only be done by passing the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act or through the compromise tabled by 19 MPs last week.

Legalizing registered partnership inside the Family Act is now on the Riigikogu's agenda and constitutes a compromise. It would ensure all families legal protection and the continued validity of traditional marriage. What we need now is peace, reconciliation and a search for common ground. Only a social contract can provide a sensible solution. Let us look for it together in a manner that transcends party lines!

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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