Same-sex marriage: NI councils in call for ‘conscience clause’ for registrars

The government is facing calls to introduce a “conscience clause” for council staff ahead of the introduction of same-sex marriage laws in January.

The law on same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland changes on January 13
The law on same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland changes on January 13

Fears are growing that local authorities could be left facing a “legal and political quagmire” in the new year over obligations for registrars to carry out same-sex weddings.

Councils here are currently finalising their arrangements ahead of the law being changed on January 13. It is anticipated the first same-sex marriages will take place in February.

But while a consultation is set to be carried out in relation to same-sex marriage within religious institutions, no such process is planned regarding civil weddings carried out by registrars in council offices.

This has raised concerns that registrars, who are council employees, could be forced to carry out same-sex ceremonies regardless of any religious or conscientious objections they may have.

The News Letter is aware that at least one Northern Ireland council has been informed that a member of staff is opposed to carrying out the services.

It is understood that some councils are currently obtaining legal advice on the issue of how to ensure that there is no discrimination against ratepayers but also to protect members of their own staff.

It is also understood that some councils have received letters from local churches requesting that legal protections are put in place to protect staff who have conscientious objections to same-sex marriage.

A council insider said: “This could be a potential legal and political quagmire for councils. The legislation is being imposed on us and, as it stands, it will force registrars to carry out marriages that some are ethically opposed to.

“There has been a lot of anger and disquiet from elected officials that this is being forced on us.”

The law to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland passed in October following a vote by MPs at Westminster.

Andrew Clarke, DUP representative on Mid and East Antrim Council, said he hoped that a conscience clause could be introduced into the legislation.

He said: “I would certainly be in favour of an approach that is tolerant to everybody, as there is no provision for conscience.

“I think we need to be sympathetic to members of staff who have worked here for a long time and are being asked to do something different.

“I think these are the sort of problems which arise when legislation is forced through Parliament in 15 minutes.”