EELK Archbishop: Church was coerced over registration of marriages issue

Archbishop Urmas Viilma.
Archbishop Urmas Viilma. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The suspension of marriage registration from January 1, 2024 following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Estonia represents an act of coercion against church governance, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia (EELK) Archbishop Urmas Viilma writes.

We need to take some time to analyze what making marriage gender-neutral means for all civil registrars and clergy.

The recent decision by the EELK's consistory to stop the registration of marriages on behalf of the state by EELK clergy – who have the right to conclude marriages as registrars – has attracted public attention in recent days . 

Behind this decision can be seen the EELK's pushback, or protest, of the the government and the Riigikogu regarding [of the relevant bill] making marriage gender-neutral from the new year.

In fact, the suspension of marriage registration from January 1, 2024 represented a coercion of church government. We are at the point where we need to take some time out to analyze what transferring marriage to a gender-neutral basis means to all, from registrars, to clergy. 

From the new year, the clergy would register one type of (gender-neutral) union, as registrars, while they would consecrate the other type of marriage (male and female) as members of the clergy.

The question has arisen whether the clergy will still register the marriage of a man and a woman in the future, or whether they would register a marriage as a gender-neutral union, even in a situation where it is a man and a woman who are getting married. But what gives marriage a gender-neutral meaning? 

Does the law that stipulates that two natural persons (a legal term-ed.) can marry each other give meaning to marriage so far as the state goes, or does the gender of those people marrying each other provide the meaning to marriage? What will the application form that a married couple fills out and submits to the clergy member (the EELK has both men and women clergy-ed.) from the registrar look like? Is there a reference there to the gender of the couple?

These and many other questions may seem unimportant or even outlandish to some people, but in the church, we must deal with them, as it concerns our faith and our religious freedoms.

I am disappointed that those officials and politicians who were responsible for drafting and processing the draft family law did not seem to take our questions seriously.

I already wrote two months ago, on April 21, in an opinion piece published by the ERR portal (link in Estonian), that the achievement of the goal sought by the governing coalition may mean churches giving up the right to register marriages hitherto guaranteed to clergy, in order to realize religious freedoms. 

I added that ignoring this fact does not demonstrate the same kind of care that it is desired be displayed to sexual minorities, by introducing gender-neutral marriage.

I am disappointed that those officials and politicians who were responsible for drafting and processing the draft family law did not seem to take our questions seriously.

In the course of the urgent preparation and processing of the draft amendment to the Family Law, no a meaningful involvement of the churches on the question of what these amendments would mean for our activities in the future was seen.

The government did not make one single attempt to analyze what the gender-neutralization of marriage in the family law might mean for the spiritual practical activities of the 108 member churches of the Estonian Council of Churches (EKN), which have the right conclude marriages.

This lack of inclusion and the lack of any impact analysis in the explanatory note of the draft bull was emphasized both at a meeting between the EKN board and Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo, at all meetings with Riigikogu party groups, and in conversations with President Alar Karis.

None of the signals mentioned received any serious attention from members of the government or representatives of coalition parties at the Riigikogu. Even when Lauri Läänemets, the Minister of the Interior and responsible for religious affairs, spoke about this problem at the joint government and EELK committee meeting on May 5 this year, neither the minister nor his subordinates took the initiative to discuss or analyze the dawning situation separately with the religious affairs department, ministry experts or church representatives.

This was followed by an announcement from the minister's subordinates concerning the termination of activities of this joint committee. The first meeting time with EKN leaders was scheduled in the calendar for the middle of summer, by which time the bill had already become law, so there is nothing more to discuss on this matter.

As a result of all this, the EELK church government decided to stop accepting applications for state marriages from our clergy from the start of next year, as we need to assess the situation that has arisen, at least internally.

In order to discuss the matter, the twenty-member episcopal council is to convene for its regular session in the fall. 

Furthermore, on behalf of the EELK, we have proposed discussing this issue at the working meeting of the EKN this fall, along with representatives of other churches whose clergy have the right to conduct state marriages.

We also stopped accepting applications on the grounds that we do not want to put any couple who want to get married in a situation where their application is not then followed by a marriage ceremony, conducted by a member of the clergy. 

It may transpire that the church forgoes the right to register marriages once and for all. We want people to be able to register their marriage by submitting an application.

Additionally, it is important to stress that although marriage applications can no longer be submitted to clergy for marriages to be concluded from next year, this can still be carried out at the civil registry office. 

Thereafter, on the basis of this procedure, an agreement can be made with the church for the marriage to be solemnized by a member of the clergy. 

Members of the clergy will continue to bless marriages in the future.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Kaupo Meiel

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