The Christian Institute

News Release

Northern Ireland churches threatened with blanket ban on holding wedding ceremonies after ultimatum letter from civil servants drawing up gay marriage rules

Civil servants have sparked a furious row after threatening to ban churches in Northern Ireland from performing weddings from next month.

A letter has been sent to places of worship in the wake of new legislation imposed by Westminster legalising same sex marriage.

In an unprecedented ultimatum it demands that churches state if they are willing to perform gay marriage ceremonies.

And they have been warned if they fail to respond before 17 August – the middle of holiday season – they will not be permitted to carry out any weddings at all.

The threatening letter from the General Register Office (GRO) for Northern Ireland states:

“Although your church has officiants currently registered with the General Register Office to carry out opposite sex marriages, I am writing to you so that we may update the officiant database with your church’s preferences for performing all types of marriages.

“Please find enclosed a form for you to complete and return with any relevant names and addresses to this office by 17th August 2020.

“If we do not receive any response by this date, it will be assumed that you and other members of the church no longer wish to be registered as officiants for any type of marriage.

“We will cancel the registrations on the officiant database accordingly, and you will not be able to carry out any marriage ceremonies in Northern Ireland.”

Churches concerned by the intimidating tone and contents of the letter have turned to The Christian Institute – which spearheaded the defence of Ashers Baking Company in the controversial gay cake case – for help and advice.

Now their in-house solicitor Sam Webster has written a hard-hitting letter to the GRO offices at Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast, demanding an explanation.

In it, he states:

“I would be grateful if you would kindly explain by return why you are writing to religious bodies threatening to cancel their existing registrations if they do not complete and return the form by August.

“Apart from the apparent lack of any legal basis for your letter, you must be aware that in this holiday season there is a real risk that your letter will go unnoticed by many recipients.”

Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute said:

“This is an outrageous way to behave towards places of worship. Like everyone else, they are under unprecedented pressures. Now, with just a few weeks’ notice, they are being given an ultimatum about whether they will do same sex marriages – on pain of losing their ability to do any weddings at all. The law says it is an opt-in system, so what do they think they are doing demanding that every single place of worship has to choose or else face draconian consequences? It is crass and intimidating. Officials have clearly got this wrong. The question is, who is to blame and will anyone be held accountable for this appalling mistake?

“The same-sex marriage legislation was imposed on the people of Northern Ireland by Westminster politicians intent on enforcing their metropolitan elitist views.

“Religious same-sex weddings were legalised in July in what the UK Government described, rightly, as an ‘opt in’ system.

“Now we have unelected officials threatening to ban all weddings from taking place in churches in Northern Ireland unless they either opt in or opt out.

“Action must be taken immediately to withdraw this letter, rescind the ultimatum, and issue an apology to the churches.

The CI letter from Mr Webster to the GRO states:

“The Christian Institute is in contact with a number of churches and denominations reporting that they have received a letter from you stating the following:

‘As you will be aware legislation was introduced on 13 January 2020, allowing for civil same sex marriage ceremonies to be performed in Northern Ireland.

‘Further legislative changes are being introduced to allow for religious same sex marriages to be performed as well. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/742/contents/made) were laid yesterday and will be enacted on the 1st September 2020.

‘The new Regulations state that religious bodies must register its officiants to carry out marriages in Northern Ireland. This registration must come from either ‘the Churches Governing Body’ or the ‘person recognized by members of the body as competent for the purpose of giving consent, in respect of the body’.

‘Therefore, although your church has officiants currently registered with the General Register Office to carry out opposite sex marriages, I am writing to you so that we may update the officiant database with your church’s preferences for performing all types of marriages. Please find enclosed a form for you to complete and return with any relevant names and addresses to this office by 17th August 2020. Please use the enclosed stamped addressed envelope.

‘If we do not receive any response by this date, it will be assumed that you and other members of the church no longer wish to be registered as officiants for any type of marriage. We will cancel the registrations on the officiant database accordingly, and you will not be able to carry out any marriage ceremonies in Northern Ireland.’

“Under Article 10 of the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 a religious body “may” apply for a member to be empowered as a marriage officiant. And under new Article 10(1A) the application must state whether it is for marriages of parties of the opposite sex, the same sex or both. However, there appears to be nothing in the Order or the amending Regulations suggesting that religious bodies must reapply to register their members as officiants if they only want to continue to conduct opposite sex marriages after 1 September. Indeed, under Article 11(1) of the 2003 Order the Registrar General is required to keep a register of all officiants. New Article 11 (3A) and (3B) provides as follows:

‘(3A) The registration of a person under this Article [i.e. 11] must indicate—

(a) whether the person is, or is not, registered for marriages of parties who are not of the same sex;

(b) whether the person is, or is not, registered for marriages of parties who are of the same sex.

(3B) Where a person is registered under this Article immediately before 1st September 2020, that registration has effect on and after that day as a registration for marriages of parties who are not of the same sex (but subject to Article 12).’ [my underlining]

“Given the above, I would be grateful if you would kindly explain by return why you are writing to religious bodies threatening to cancel their existing registrations if they do not complete and return the form by August. Apart from the apparent lack of any legal basis for your letter, you must be aware that in this holiday season there is a real risk that your letter will go unnoticed by many recipients.”

Letter from the General Register Office for Northern Ireland.
Enclosure from the General Register Office for Northern Ireland.

ENDS

For further information contact:
Simon Calvert
The Christian Institute
Mob: 07802 796512