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Religious Associations in the Debate about Same-Sex Unions in Estonia

The issue of recognising same-sex unions has been discussed in Estonian society since the early 2000s. In 2005, the new draft of the family law declared marriage as a union between a man and a woman, whichand initiated a public debate of how same-sex unions should be recognised. The Estonian constitution, which was passed in 1992, does not specify that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but it declares that ‘family’ is under the protection of the law. Family, again, is not in any way defined. The first phase of the discussion ended with a proposition made by a number of NGOs to draft a new partnership law and give all couples equal rights.
The second phase began in 2008, when the Ministry of Justice announced that it was working on a separate law to recognise registered partnerships of same-sex couples. The law, for example, provided inheritance and shared property ownership rights to same-sex couples. When the draft was made public, both the churches separately and the Estonian Council of Churches (ECC), representing 10 religious associations, passed a declaration on the issue, stating that they were opposed to the law to recognise registered partnerships. According to the ECC, in the Bible, homosexual practices were considered a sin and therefore the ECC could not support any other family regulations than the one between a man and a woman.
In autumn of 2010, there was a clash in the Lutheran church when Rev Heino Nurk, who had been ordained in 1983, was fired because the government of the Lutheran church said that he had gone against the doctrine and ethical norms of the church. In the summer of 2010, Nurk had registered a Society of Gay Christians, whose members asked for equal rights for heterosexual and gay Christians within the church.
This was followed by two petitions, both published by the Lutheran clergy on a special petition internet site in September 2011. First, the Humanist Christian Petition called the church to recognise different views, regardless of sex, education, sexual orientation, etc., so that all Christians would feel welcome and have equal rights in the church. Likewise, every church member had the right and obligation to hold a view on the matters of the church. The petition also dealt with the issue of the Bible, saying that in the Bible one needed to distinguish the social norms of the time when the Bible was written and timeless religious norms. A few days later, a petition of traditional Christianity was released. That petition said that religious freedom of the last decades could lead to a dead end and therefore it was necessary for the church to stay firmly behind its traditional position, which according to the petition the church had always held. The Bible was to be read with ‘religious eyes’ and it was certainly necessary to consider it as a basis in formulating social norms.
After the interference of the Chancellor of Justice Indrek Teder in May 2011, with his request that the Ministry of Justice should introduce a civil partnership law, because the current situation, which did not legally recognise same-sex relationships, contradicted the Estonian constitution, a new and more heated public discussion began. By 2012, the Ministry of Justice had a draft of the law ready which reached the parliament by spring 2014. It was called the Registered Partnership Act (Kooseluseadus).
In 2014, before the law was ready to go to the parliamentary session for voting, the ECC sent an open letter to the parliament, and once again declared its support to the so-called traditional family and marriage between a man and a woman. Other questions were asked in the letter: how would it be guaranteed that the old way of understanding family and marriage would not be overruled, and that the new law would not cause mistrust and intolerance? What were the next steps planned? How did the law affect children, and their rights for an equally natural treatment by their fathers and mothers? How did it affect adoption?

During the discussions, the NGO Society for the Protection of Tradition and the Family (SPTF), ran by conservative Catholic circles, was established. It helped to set up a united stand for the conservatives, who in spring 2014 started a campaign against the Registered Partnership Act. A petition on paper was sent to thousands and thousands of homes, to be signed by those who supported the cause promoted by the SPTF. Altogether nearly 37,000 people expressed their support to the petition. A few years later, the conservative website Objektiiv was launched, which is still run by the SPTF, publishes articles against abortion and the current politics of the European Union, and is strongly anti-immigration.
The Registered Partnership Act was submitted to the Parliament on 17 April 2014 and was passed on 9 October (40 for, and 38 against). Several members abstained from voting. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves signed the act on the same day, and it took effect on the 1st of January 2016.
However, the adoption of the act did not mean that the discussion and a severe contradiction between different social groups ceased to exist. There are two lines of development to follow. One is related to the Registered Partnership Act, and the other one to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia.
The Registered Partnership Act took effect without implementing measures, and was, therefore, likely to cause a number of legal problems. In 2015, the new government, now including the conservative party Pro Patria, decided that the parliament, and not the government, should pass the measures for a full implementation of the law. So far, it has not happened, and after the parliamentary elections in March 2019, with an even more conservative government and parliament than earlier, it will probably not take place in the coming years either. At the same time, in spring 2018, the Estonian Supreme Court ruled that the law was still in effect and should be enforced, despite the lack of implementing measures.
The position of religious communities has become more diverse. Over the years, the number of clergy who publicly declare their support to the Registered Partnership Act has risen. In this respect, the Lutheran Rev Annika Laats received the most supportive and condemning reaction, when in October 2017 in a TV show she asked from a young ECP politician why he was condemning and frightening people on the issue of gays and the act. The Lutheran church asked Laats to its government meeting, but did not take any action. At the same time, theological discussion over the matter has remained quite modest, so that only a few scientific articles by biblical scholars from the University of Tartu and the University of Tallinn have been published, but they have largely been ignored by religious associations, or caused dissatisfaction, arguing that the faculty of theology at the University of Tartu is too liberal.
By 2017, there appeared an old aspect newly discovered, namely the aim to change the constitution. The issue was raised by Urmas Viilma, the archbishop of the Lutheran church, who was the first to affirm that same-sex couples needed protection too, but to do that religious associations needed to be sure that the state of marriage would be protected by the law and would only mean a man-woman union. During its parliamentary session, the Lutheran church proposed that the constitution should be altered, so that it would include a definition of marriage. Although the idea received support from the church and has by now also received support by the ECC, it has angered the most conservative voices, who already in 2017 and thereafter have repeated that the Registered Partnership Act has to be abolished. They are supported by the CCP. At the same time during the parliamentary session of the Lutheran church Rev Mart Salumäe gave an interview to the Estonian National Television and claimed that even during the Soviet occupation period the church had not been as hostile and angry towards minorities as nowadays and there had always been gay pastors in the church, some had even held a rank of a dean (the Lutheran church consists of deaneries). Annika Laats was amazed over the church’s attempt to regulate the life of those who do not belong to the church (According to the 2011 census, only 29% of the population claim that they belong to a certain religious association, more than 95% of them are Christians).
After the parliamentary elections in March 2019, the ECP as a government party has begun to fight to change the constitution in order to add the possibility of an easier way to organize a referendum to either pass or abolish laws. They have come out loud, hoping to abolish the Registered Partnership Act. However, to change the constitution it has to get a majority in two following parliaments, so that the issue has to receive the majority of votes of the parliament, which will be elected in 2023 too. So far, the constitution has been altered only a few times, and it has always been after a wide agreement between all political parties has been reached.

Source: Priit Rohtmets. Eesti usuelu 100 aastat. Tallinn: Post Factum, 2019.

D 25 June 2019    APriit Rohtmets

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