By an 85-24, parliament last week voted to legalise same-sex marriage, putting Denmark on an equal footing with other Scandinavian countries like Iceland and Sweden that allow full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples.
Same-sex couples will be able to marry in the church of their choice, but resistent vicars will not be obliged to perform the weddings. Under the new law, if a vicar declines to perform the service, the couple would be required to find one themselves.
New marriage rites were written up by ten of the Church of Denmark’s eleven bishops. A new ceremony was needed after bishops ruled that the current one can only be used to wed heterosexual couples.
“One of the biggest differences is the use of terms like ‘couples’ and ‘spouses’, rather than ‘man’ and ‘woman’,” Keld Holm, the bishop of Aarhus, told Berlingske newspaper. “Some biblical stories are also hard to use, like the creation story of one man and one woman, so we have suggested other passages.”
Holm stressed that the new rites are only suggestions and that individual vicars can use the Bible as they choose.
One of the prayers the bishops included in the new ceremony reads: “Dear God, Heavenly Father. Our lives are in your hand. You follow us through the days and nights. We thank you for the people we share our life with, for every loving glance, in whose light we have matured, and for each meeting: which has opened the world. We ask you, spread your loving sky above us and strengthen us by your grace, so we never hesitate to put our lives in each other’s hands. Amen.”
Although the church minister, Manu Sareen (Radikale), praised the new rites as “beautiful, open and flexible”, some members of the religious community are not convinced.
Lise Lotte Rebel, the bishop of Helsingør, said that the new ceremony turns the focus away from God.
“They seem to accentuate the romantic notion of love between people. This creates a major theological problem,” Rebel told Jylland’s-Posten newspaper.
While same-sex and heterosexual couples will be wed using different rituals, their marriage status will be equal.
John Buie, a gay American living in Denmark with his Danish partner (see related story below), is glad that the two ceremonies will grant equal status.
“The last time the bishops considered this issue, they created a ritual that they themselves said gave same-sex couples second-class status.”
In 1989, Denmark became the first country in the world to allow civil partnerships between couples of the same gender, and with the expected law change, the approximately 4,100 couples in registered partnerships will automatically be granted the status of marriage.
Sareen lauded the “historic” law change. “In 1989 people were given the opportunity to register their partnerships at City Hall,” Sareen told Politiken. “But now that we have given them the opportunity to get married, we have lifted the level of equality to a whole new level. Couples of the same sex will be put on the same footing as couples of a different sex and that is a huge change.”
Sareen added that allowing vicars to decline to marry same-sex couples meant that parliament was not infringing on the Church of Denmark’s right to make its own theological reading.
“We are giving vicars the opportunity to say no. That’s what’s so fantastic about this proposal. On the one hand it allows same sex couples the opportunity to get married,” Sareen said. “But at the same time, we’re reaching out to priests and saying that those who don’t want to wed homosexual couples don’t have to. We recognise that when dealing with theology, you have to accept there will be different interpretations.”
This view was not shared by the Kristendemokraterne (KD) – who currently have no seats in parliament – and who are now threatening to launch a class action law suit against the state.
“Parliament is infringing religious freedom and in doing so violates the constitution. That is why we are working on a lawsuit against the state to protect religious freedom and protect people who feel the law infringes their right to practice their faith,” Per Ørum Jørgensen, KD’s chairman, said.
Overall, however, support for the legislation was overwhelming, with the prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne), also marking the “historic occasion” on her Facebook page.
“Today, we allow homosexual couples to enter into marriage on the same footing as any others – something that Socialdemokraterne has fought for, for many years,” Thorning-Schmidt wrote.
Among the parties in parliament, only the right-wing Dansk Folkeparti voted against the law, while party leaders from the opposition (Venstre and Konservative) granted their MPs the right to vote according to their conscience. All other parties voted in favour.