Marriage equality in Denmark by next year

24 Oct 2011

In just a few months, homosexuals will get the right to marry in the Church of Denmark - they will, in any case, if the new church minister has his way.

The government plans to introduce a bill just after the New Year that will allow same-sex couples to hold weddings in the Church of Denmark and be 'married' under Danish law. Same-sex couples are currently allowed to have 'registered partnerships', a civil status, but are barred from marriage and church weddings.

"The first same-sex weddings will hopefully become reality in Spring 2012. I look forward to the moment the first homosexual couple steps out of the church. I'll be standing out there throwing rice," the new church minister, Manu Sareen, a Social Liberal, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

Sareen's appointment as church minister was one of the more controversial of the new coalition government.

He is a professed religious "doubter", who, before becoming church minister, came awfully close to writing himself off the national church registry, in direct protest against its long-standing ban on same-sex marriage.

"I'm not sure that there's a god, unfortunately," Sareen told Jyllands-Posten. "I wish I could believe it. Then I could say: there's God and because of him I know what happens after we die."

But if the minister was uncertain about the existence of God, one thing he was absolutely certain of is that homosexuals deserve the same rights as heterosexuals.

"I have many friends who are homosexuals and can't get married. They love their partners the same way heterosexuals do, but they don't have the right to live it out in the same way. That's really problematic," Sareen said.

"Today it would be unthinkable not to have female priests," he continued. "That's how it will also be for same-sex weddings."

Some local priests, like Henrik Højlund, who is the parish priest for Løsning and Korning and chairman for the Evangelical Lutheran Network (ELN), however, disagreed with the minister.

"Lots of people are mistaken in thinking that homosexual weddings are just the next step after female priests. But it is much more consequential and beyond the boundaries for normal Christianity," Højlund told Jyllands-Posten.

"The Church of Denmark is being secularised right up to the alter in a desperate and mistaken attempt to meet modern people halfway," he said, adding that same-sex marriage would be "fatal for the church".

In 1989 Denmark became the first country in the world to legalise civil unions between same-sex partners. But the country stopped short of calling it "marriage" and same-sex couples still are not allowed to have marriage ceremonies in the Church of Denmark.

Polls taken over the years, and right up until last week, have consistently shown that around 69 percent of the population supports same-sex marriage in the church. The Danish clergy and politicians have lagged behind popular opinion, however.

A 2004 poll revealed that less than 40 percent of the clergy in the Church of Denmark supported same-sex marriage - a more than 30 percentage point difference from the general population. Moreover, bills to legalise same-sex marriage were voted down by parliament several times.

But the outlook may be different now that the centre-left has assumed power after ten years in opposition and has appointed a church minister whose beliefs and religious habits more closely resemble those of most Danes.

While Sareen doubts the existence of God, he said he still enjoys going to church - albeit on rare occasions - to experience the atmosphere of "spirituality, reverence, respect, and humility: things that are missing in our everyday lives".

Less than five percent of Danes today attend church services on a weekly basis, yet 80 percent are - like Sareen - registered members who pay taxes to support it, but who only rarely attend services. This year alone, the Church of Denmark will receive an estimated 5.9 billion kroner in taxes from its registered members, plus additional tax-supported state subsidies equalling 130 kroner for every single citizen, regardless of religious affiliation, sexual preference, or other beliefs.

Helene Devantié, the chair of Kirketjenerforening, the association for church employees, was willing to allow for same-sex marriages in the Church of Denmark, but only as long as church employees could choose, on an individual basis, whether or not to serve same-sex couples.

"The churches should have the option of creating local agreements, so that the employees who have ethical or moral problems with homosexuals marrying can exempt themselves," she said.

Devantié's demand raised questions about whether church employees - public employees, whose salaries are paid by taxes - should have the right to refuse service to certain citizens, just because they disapprove of their lifestyles or personal attributes.

Minister Sareen said church employees who are set against marrying homosexuals would not be forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies. "But we must also make it possible for homosexuals to marry in the church," he added.

Vivi Jelstrup, the co-chair of LGBT Danmark, the association for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transvestites in Denmark, expressed approval that Sareen and the new government are serious about allowing same-sex marriages in the Church of Denmark. But she wanted assurances that the law would also change to provide real equality across the board.

"We also want to see the Justice Minister laying out the groundwork for gender-neutral marriages," she told Jyllands-Posten.

Article from The Copenhagen Post Online