The Danish Folketing has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a full ecclesiastical marriage service in the national Evangelical-Lutheran church for homosexual couples, to be instituted as a full, official marriage equal to that of heterosexual couples.
After a lengthy and sometimes heated debate, which ran some three hours over the allotted time, 85 members voted in favour of the law, 24 against and with two abstentions.
Members of the sole house of the Folketing approved the gender-neutral marriage legislation after an opposition amendment creating a separate system of marriage for gay couples under different terminology was rejected the previous day.
Gay couples in Denmark have not hitherto been able to enter into marriage, but only into registered partnerships. The new law means that they can now choose whether to be married in church or at a town hall. Both the Liberal and Conservative parties removed their party whips for Thursday’s vote due to internal differences, leaving the decision to their individual members’ convictions.
The Minister for Equality and Church and Nordic Cooperation in the coalition government of the Social Democrats, Social Liberal Party and Socialist People’s Party said of equal marriage: “It’s liberalism, it’s diversity, it’s equality, it’s tolerance and it’s so beautiful.” He has used much of his ministerial tenure to develop and defend the proposal and says the parliamentary decision is historic. “The debate has been really tough,” said Mr Sareen, an agnostic who has pushed hard for the legislation since taking his post last autumn.
“The minority among Danish people, politicians and priests who are against, they’ve really shouted out loud throughout the process.” “This is along the lines of when we got women priests. I am really happy. It is something all three government parties have wanted for many years,” Sareen said.
The far-Right Danish People’s Party mounted a strong campaign against the new law and was the only party to vote against the Bill as a party. Ecclesiastical Affairs Spokesman Christian Langballe, himself a theologian and vicar, says that ‘marriage is as old as human beings’ and that something so fundamental cannot be changed. “Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman.” Karsten Nissen, the Bishop of Viborg, who is refusing to carry out the ceremonies, has warned that the new law risks “splitting the church”.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark, to which 80 percent of the Danish population belongs, will be able to perform marriage ceremonies under the new laws. New rites were written up by ten of the Church’s eleven bishops in a spirit of “good cooperation”, Bishop Kjeld Holm said.
Gay couples will be able to marry in churches of their choice but priests will not be obliged to perform weddings. They would, however, need to help the couple find a priest who would marry them at the church under the new laws.
Members of the Christian Democrats (a party that is not represented in parliament) plan to sue the state, believing that the law infringes on their freedom of religion. However experts say they dont have much of a chance since the law specifically allows ministers of the church to abstain from presiding over same-sex marriages.
The new law makes it mandatory for all churches to conduct gay marriages. Under the law, individual priests can refuse to carry out the ceremony, but the local bishop must arrange a replacement for their church. Nearly one third of the country’s priests have said they will refuse to carry out the ceremonies.
With the law now passed, homosexuals are expected to be able to marry in church from June 15, although it will be up to vicars whether they are willing to carry out a marriage service for homosexuals. This contrasts with neighbouring Norway, where bishops are still debating the correct ‘ritual’ for the ceremonies, four years after a 2008 parliamentary vote in favour of gay marriage.
Denmark’s bishops are to present proposals for a marriage ceremony to Sareen on Monday. Denmark has been a pioneer in gay rights since 1989, when it became the first country in the world to offer civil unions for gay couples.