Religious same-sex marriages made law in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Office has announced that same-sex religious marriages can take place in the country from September.

It confirmed regulations were laid in Westminster on Thursday, but exemptions and protections remain in place for religious bodies who do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages.

Same-sex marriage was legally recognised in Northern Ireland in January, but that did not extend to ceremonies in churches, or to religious bodies.

Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards were the first couple to celebrate a same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland in February.

The Northern Ireland Office opened the consultation on extending its original provision to religious same-sex marriages and the latest regulations are based on the results of that.

The UK government has stressed that religious bodies cannot be “compelled by any means” to carry out services.

A 28 days notice of intent to have a religious service can be given from September 1, which means the first ceremonies could take place as soon as September 29.

Same-sex marriage was legally recognised in Northern Ireland in January, but that did not extend to ceremonies in churches, or to religious bodies. (Nick Karvounis)

The legislation contains equality law protections so that religious bodies and officiants cannot be held to be unlawfully discriminating against same-sex couples if they refuse to marry them.

That protection has been extended to cover church halls and other buildings owned by a church.

A UK government spokesperson said: “The regulations ensure appropriate protections and exemptions are in place for those religious bodies and officiants who do not wish to solemnise same-sex religious marriages.

“The regulations deliver equivalent rights and protections to the rest of the UK in practice.”

The move has been welcomed by same-sex marriage campaigners, but they are now urging the government to make marriage fully equal by allowing same-sex couples with an existing civil partnership to be able to convert their partnership into a marriage.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Director called the move “a landmark” for equality in Northern Ireland.

“After a long campaign, same-sex couples of faith will finally be able to marry in a church or other religious setting,” he said.

Mr Corrigan welcomed the fact the new law protects religious freedom and that churches will not be “compelled nor prevented” from offering same-sex ceremonies.

“We now urge the government to finish the job of marriage equality in Northern Ireland without further delay, by allowing couples in civil partnerships to convert to married status if they so wish,” he added.

There are 1,200 same-sex couples in Northern Ireland who currently have civil partnerships.

Reverend Chris Hudson, minister of All Souls Church in Belfast – a member of the Non-Subscribing Church of Ireland – also welcomed the law change.

“This is great news for couples who wish to celebrate their marriage in church, embraced by family, friends and the love of God,” he said.

“I have already been speaking to a number of couples who have been waiting for this day so they can finally have the church wedding that they have longed for. Autumn wedding bells will be ringing in Belfast.

“Until now, this legal right has been denied to churches, ministers like me, and same-sex couples of faith in Northern Ireland.”

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