Response to the Northern Ireland Office Consultation on same-sex religious marriage in Northern Ireland by the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland

25 Feb 2020


The Catholic Church holds as a central tenet of its Christian belief that Marriage is the permanent, life-long union of one man and one woman, open to the generation of new life. We believe that the family, based on marriage, provides the fundamental building block of society. Marriage therefore deserves special recognition, support and protection by the State. As both a natural and a divinely revealed institution, the Catholic Church holds that marriage makes a unique, fundamental and irreplaceable contribution to the common good of society.

In making this response to the Northern Ireland Office consultation on what is described as ‘Religious Same Sex Marriage’, we as the Catholic Bishops in Northern Ireland welcome the recognition that both individuals and communities of faith, notably recognised Churches and major faith groups with responsibility for the administration of marriage within their communities, have fundamental rights and freedoms. It is an internationally recognised principle of human rights that these rights and freedoms deserve recognition and protection by the law in any authentically free, diverse and open society.

To this end we support the proposal in the consultation document, to provide the ‘triple lock’ outlined in paragraph 27 of the Consultation Document, namely that:

  • officiants will only be able to solemnise same-sex religious marriage if the governing authority of the religious body they belong to has given its written consent to same-sex marriage.
  • the legislation will make clear that religious bodies (and individual officiants) cannot be compelled by any means, including by the enforcement of a contract or a statutory or other legal requirement, to perform same-sex marriages or otherwise be involved in same-sex marriages. 
  • there will be equality law protections so that religious bodies and individual officiants do not unlawfully discriminate if they refuse to solemnise marriages because of the sex or sexual orientation of the couple.

We also welcome the regulations made under Section 8(1) of the NI EF Act amending the law to provide that discussion or criticism of same-sex marriage will not of itself be an offence and that people remain free to express views, including critical views, about same-sex ‘marriage’, so long as this is not done in a threatening, abusive or insulting way and is not intended to stir up hatred or arouse fear. The Catholic Church, as part of its universal teaching, holds that every person should be treated with love, dignity and respect and that discussion of the often complex and deeply personal issues involved in this area should be conducted with the utmost sensitivity, understanding and care for those involved. As Pope Francis explained in his Apostolic Exhortation on ‘The Joy of Love’ (Amoris Laetitia), ‘The Church makes her own the atti­tude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his bound­less love to each person without exception… We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while every sign of unjust discrimination is to be carefully avoided, par­ticularly any form of aggression and violence’ (n.250).

For the Catholic community of faith, the dignity and importance of marriage is also reflected in the fact that it is one of the seven sacraments of the Church. As well as being a natural institution, rooted in human reason and central to the common good, we believe as Catholics that marriage is a living sign of the eternal covenant between Jesus Christ and His Church. This sacramental character of marriage elevates it to a core part of the Church’s doctrine and life. Irrespective of any change to the civil law or the approach of the State to the institution of marriage, the permanent and sacramental character of marriage within the Catholic Church always remains unchanged, including for those who have validly contracted a sacramental marriage within the Church.

A the heart of the present consultation, therefore, is the obligation on the State and its legislators, recognising the vital importance of respect for freedom of religion, expression and conscience, to respect and protect the proper autonomy of Churches and their respective Governing Authorities regarding marriages solemnised by those Churches.

In response to the specific questions posed in the consultation document, therefore, we offer the following responses:

Question 1: Do you agree that the consent of the governing authority should be required before officiants can be appointed to solemnise same-sex religious marriage?  YES

We believe that in recognising the rights and freedoms of religious groups in society, it is important that the law in this area gives due recognition to the structures by which Churches and other faith bodies are governed and the means by which their belief and practice in respect of religious marriage is determined.

Question 2: Do you agree that officiants should be free to choose whether to solemnise same-sex marriage, even where their religious body chooses to consent to such marriages?  YES

We believe this is in line with the general principle of respect for freedom of individual conscience on religious matters and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides for the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance. 

Question 3: Do you agree with the proposed general definition of ‘governing authority’, whose consent is required for religious bodies to solemnise same-sex religious marriages? YES

Question 4: Do you agree that the definition of governing authority should also include a person or body (such as a recognised decision-making body) that, on request, is specified in regulations? YES

We agree with the proposed general definition of ‘governing authority’ set out in the consultation document and support the view that the recognised governing authorities of the major Churches in Northern Ireland should be explicitly mentioned in the regulations/legislation. We note the recognition of the General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales as the relevant ‘Governing Authority’ for the Catholic Church in the equivalent regulations for England. We request that the NIO engage directly with us as the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland to agree the appropriate wording for the Governing Authority in respect of the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland.

Question 5: Do you agree that no religious bodies or persons acting on behalf of such bodies should be compelled to undertake specified activities relating to same-sex marriage? YES

In keeping with the fundamental right to freedom of religion and conscience, we agree that no religious body or person acting on behalf of such bodies should be compelled to undertake specified activities relating to same-sex marriage. We hold that such a position is consistent with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, we wish to highlight a specific concern regarding the scope of ‘activity’ protected by any such regulations. The Catholic Church regards ongoing pastoral care provided in support of those couples preparing for Sacramental Marriage or those couples who have contracted Sacramental Marriage as an activity which should also be covered by the principle that no religious body, or person acting on behalf of such bodies, should be compelled to undertake activities relating to same-sex marriage. This, we believe, should include protection for those individual ministers, or others mandated by the Governing Authority of the Church, as well as pastoral organisations operated by the Church (such as Accord Catholic Marriage Care Service), not to be compelled to provide marriage preparation, relationship counselling or other marriage related services in respect of those contracting same-sex marriage, should they believe it is inconsistent with their religious belief to do so. We would also ask that explicit provision be made that would protect such faith-based organisations, which provide valued and highly effective pastoral services in support of marriage and the family, from being discriminated against in access to public funds because of their beliefs in respect of same-sex marriage.

We would also argue that any person who is a committed member of the Catholic Church, and for whom their religious faith is a fundamental part of their identity and the core motivation in their every activity, cannot be asked or expected to create a false division between their faith and their public, professional life. In a very real sense, every committed member of a Church is considered, in all aspects of their life, to be acting ‘on behalf of such bodies’ (their Church or faith) in their daily vocational work. We believe that it is reasonable to hold that their right to freedom of conscience in this area should also be recognised in a balanced and considered way.

In this regard, we wish to draw attention to the fact that the current proposals make frequent reference to the regulations in England, Scotland and Wales as their basic point of reference. However, there is no acknowledgement that these regulations were framed before the decision of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others [2018] UKSC 49. The current consultation document makes no reference whatsoever to the potential implications of this judgement for the wider application of the principle of respect for freedom of conscience and religion as applies in this area.

In essence, the Supreme Court ruled in this case that people in the United Kingdom cannot be forced to promote a message they fundamentally disagree with. We would argue, with reference to the legal and moral principle of cooperation, that in being compelled to provide a service which de facto promotes same-sex marriage, those such as civil Registrars and others are, at least indirectly, being compelled to act against their sincerely held religious beliefs and that their legitimate right to freedom of religion, expression and conscience is being denied.

We would also ask the Northern Ireland Office to publicly comment on the implications of the Supreme Court Judgement in the Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others case for their proposals in this area and to provide more reasonable and balanced protections for those with sincerely held religious beliefs, as well as for those with a different view, in this area.

Question 6: Do you agree that religious bodies (including persons acting on their behalf and under their auspices) and officiants should not be compelled to undertake the core functions specified in paragraph 49? YES

Paragraph 49 of the consultation document specifies core functions which religious bodies and officiants will not be compelled to undertake. In that regard we welcome the inclusion in paragraph 49 of the phrase “ceremony or event to mark the formation of a marriage”.  We believe it is important that the legislation also guard against the unintended consequence whereby a same-sex couple and a registered officiant may wish to use premises under the authority of a governing body which has not given consent to the solemnisation of same-sex marriages. 

Question 7: Do you agree that the existing protections plus the exceptions we are proposing to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 and the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 cover the services a religious body or person acting on its behalf might provide to the public in connection with same-sex marriage? YES

We welcome the exceptions outlined which will cover ceremonies at the time a marriage is solemnised as well as ‘blessings’ and other ceremonies provided after the marriage or civil partnership is formed. However as indicated above we would also ask that the legislation provide protection against an unintended consequence whereby a same-sex couple and a registered officiant may wish to use premises under the authority of a governing body which has not given consent to the solemnisation of same-sex marriages. 

As indicated in our response to Question 5, we believe the proposed scope of the exceptions, and the understanding of ‘a religious body or person acting on its behalf’ are too narrow, creating an unreasonable distinction between a person’s religious belief and their daily professional, business, vocational or other activities. We believe that a position more tolerant, understanding and accommodating of sincere religious belief and its implications for all aspects of a person’s life should be reflected in the regulations.

Question 8: Do you agree that the proposed protections (set out in sections 1.6 – 1.9) relating to consent, non-compulsion and equality law exceptions are appropriate for ministers/chaplains working in secular organisations? YES

We agree that the proposed protections relating to consent, non-compulsion and equality law exceptions are appropriate for ministers/chaplains working in secular organisations. 

Question 9: If you represent a religious body in Northern Ireland, would you choose to give consent to solemnise same-sex marriages? NO

As indicated in our opening paragraph, the Catholic Church has consistently held as a central tenet of its Christian belief that Marriage is the permanent, life-long union of one man and one woman, open to the generation of new life. The complementarity between man and woman, and the openness to new life that it holds, is fundamental to the Catholic doctrine of marriage and is not subject to alteration on the basis of civil law or popular opinion. The Catholic Church, and those acting on its behalf, as a matter of deeply held religious belief, are therefore not in a position to give consent to solemnise what the State may choose to recognise in civil law as same-sex ‘marriage.

Question 10: Organisational information

The Catholic Church in Ireland is an all-island organisation comprising approximately 4.5 million members, of which 738,000 members are in Northern Ireland (according to the 2011 census). Each Bishop is the recognised ‘governing authority’ within the territory of his own Diocese, of which there are 26 on the island, and of which six have some or all of their territory in Northern Ireland. Certain aspects of Church governance are also exercised by the Irish Bishops’ Conference.

Of the 64% of all marriages that were religious marriages in Northern Ireland in 2018, the greatest number, some 2525 (NISRA) took place in a Catholic Church.

Question 11: Publication of response

We consent to the publication of this response.


+Eamon Martin                                                                     +Michael Router

Archbishop of Armagh                                                        Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh

Apostolic Administrator of Diocese of Dromore


+Noel Treanor                                   +Donal McKeown     +Larry Duffy

Bishop of Down and Connor           Bishop of Derry         Bishop of Clogher



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