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Estonia: Churches oppose to the legalisation of same-sex marriages

  • January 2024

On 20 June 2023 the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) adopted amendments to the Family Law Act which gave same-sex couples a legal right to marry. 55 MPs voted for the bill and 34 against. On 27 June, the President of the Republic of Estonia, Alar Karis, confirmed the law, which came into effect from 1 January 2024.

Discussions over same-sex unions began already in the early 2000s. Throughout the entire process, Estonian religious associations have been against legalising same-sex unions.

In 2008, and again in 2010, the Estonian Council of Churches, consisting of the 10 biggest Christian religious associations, declared that, “the tradition of the scripture cannot be reinterpreted in a way that approves of homosexual practice. Homosexuality is a sin according to the Bible."

When in 2012 a debate was going on in Estonian society about a proposition to pass a cohabitation law, which was intended, among others, to regulate the cohabitation of same-sex couples, the ECC expressed the conviction that the rights of non-marital cohabitation partners could be ensured within the current legislation. In 2014, shortly before the cohabitation law was discussed in Riigikogu, a similar public letter was sent to the Riigikogu.

Despite the appeal, the cohabitation law was passed in Riigikogu on 9 October 2014 (40 for and 38 against the bill). The implementing acts were, however, not passed, so that instantly after the cohabitation law itself was passed, discussions over the implementation of the new law began. For this reason, the debate continued during the following years.

In 2017, the ECC and the Lutheran Church asked for a discussion on changing the constitution, in order to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. At the same time, over the years, the number of clercs who opposed the ecclesiastical mainstream steadily grew. Especially the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church witnessed a growing interest in the theological discussion over the issue. However, no such discussion has yet started, although at the beginning of 2024 a strategy for theological discussion was adopted.

After the general election in March 2023 the government, consisting of two liberal parties (Estonian Reform Party and Estonia 200) and Social Democrats, decided not only to pass the implementing acts of the cohabitation law, but also to legalise same-sex marriages. According to their understanding, Estonian society had been discussing these issues for more than a decade and it was time to decide and move on. The churches, however, argued that the decision to legalise same-sex marriages was too sudden and there was a lack of analysis and debate over the topic.

In May 2023 the Minister of Social Affairs sent a draft for approval to all involved parties, according to which two adults could marry regardless of their gender. In addition to marriage, the possibility to sign a cohabitation agreement also remained a legal option.

The Estonian Council of Churches declared that it did not agree with the changes in amending the Family Act and other related laws. They suggested that the Ministry should separate the part concerning the concept of marriage and the part concerning the implementation of the Cohabitation Act. According to the ECC, both acts needed more detailed analyses and discussions, including analysing whether a referendum on the issue should be preferred over of a parliamentary vote. The heads of Orthodox Churches, Lutheran Church, etc. each also expressed their opinion in public.

On 6 June the representatives of the ECC met the Legal Affairs Committee of the Parliament to discuss the draft. A week before the final vote, the ECC published another document, a ’Memorandum to the Estonian public’, arguing that the “family, which is rooted in the marriage between a man and a woman, is the basis for the survival of the nation and the prerequisite for its growth, which is in accordance with the Bible as well as the spirit, meaning and purpose of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia.“

After the Parliament had adopted amendments to the Family Law Act, which gave same-sex couples a legal right to marry, and had passed the implementing acts of the Cohabitation law, the Consistory (Government) of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church decided on 27 June 2023 to suspend clergy acting as civil servants from 1 January 2024 and to stop accepting new applications for marriage. The other churches did not take a similar decision, because the law did not grant them the right to marry same-sex couples. The decision of the Lutheran church was, thus, also short-lived: on 17 October the EELC decided to allow the clergy to also register marriages after the revised Family Act of 1 January.

The Ministry for Internal Affairs worked out a new regulation with gender-neutral forms, using the terms "first married person" and "second married person" to mentioned parties. However, people can also choose to use a form where the parties to be married are a called "man" and "woman".

D 29 January 2024    APriit Rohtmets

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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