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Same-sex marriage turns three in Finland: "You can be religious and LGBT"

Nearly 1,500 same-sex nuptials have taken place since Finland legalised gay marriage. We followed one couple to the altar.

Equal Rites
Equal Rites

Sunday marks three years since same-sex couples in Finland gained the legal right to marry. It was the culmination of a years-long campaign and a citizens’ initiative that drew more than 156,000 signatures, marking a watershed moment for Finnish society.

As the bill passed in parliament on a grey late-November day in 2014, about 5,000 people gathered outside in a celebratory mood. Inside the chamber, MP Sylvia Modig shed tears and lawmakers exchanged light banter.

Her Left Alliance colleague Erkki Virtanen asked assembled legislators why Modig, a lesbian, was allowed to marry him even though she didn’t love him.

"I do love you!" Modig shouted.

"But not in that way," Virtanen quipped.

Other MPs were less jubilant. Some said the law would damage children, some said it would lead to marriage between humans and animals.

But the law was passed anyway, and now Christian Democrat MP Sari Tanus says it would be ‘a waste of time’ to fight against same-sex marriage.

The amendment to standing marriage laws meant that same-sex marriage became legal in Finland on 1 March 2017. Since then nearly 1,500 couples have tied the knot.

Priests performed 85 of these nuptials and another 40 couples received blessings from the clergy, according to unofficial figures collected by Olavi Virtanen, a pastor from Konnevesi, north of Jyväskylä.

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Lesbians have access to fertility treatment in Finland's public healthcare system. However male couples are not able to use surrogates under Finnish law. Image: AP GraphicsBank

One of those same-sex unions was between Lauren Stevens and Maria Riikonen, a Finnish-British couple living in Tampere.

They met at university in England when they were both members of a Christian Union students’ group. Their initial friendship gradually became a relationship, and in 2015 Stevens moved to Finland to live with Riikonen.

After two years living together, Stevens proposed to Riikonen in August 2017.

"It felt unreal that it was finally going to happen here," Riikonen recalled. "We had talked about moving to England as we knew we could get married there, but I think we both came to the conclusion that it is easier for us to live in Finland due to education, safety, and for raising a family."

As they both come from religious backgrounds, they felt it was natural to have their wedding ceremony in a church. The passing of the same-sex marriage legislation was therefore a hugely significant moment for them.

They had often struggled to reconcile their faith with their sexuality — especially in light of the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

"Someone has literally told me that I should throw away this part of me that I really don’t feel I have a choice with,” Stevens said. “It feels like I have these two sides and they are kind of at war."

As they prepared for their own wedding, both Stevens and Riikonen found solace and support in a small but growing sub-sector of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church congregation that attend 'Rainbow Masses' (sateenkaarimessut) -- a regularly held church service that "accepts everyone as they are."

"I know that there are other people like me, and that you can be religious and LGBT."

Growing anti-gender rights movements

Same-sex marriage in Finland was the result of a years-long grassroots initiative. The legislation was also a pivotal moment for participatory democracy in Finland, as the law grew from a citizens' initiative to a statute that legally recognised marriage for same-sex couples — after MPs had rejected a previous proposal to allow gay marriage.

It is now an almost unchallenged part of Finland’s legal code, with only a few fringe groups trying to overturn it.

In February a citizen’s initiative called "I do 2020" (tahdon2020) , which wanted to give religious communities the right to discriminate against sexual minorities, attracted less than one-tenth of the 50,000 signatures needed to qualify for consideration on the parliamentary floor.

Kerttu Tarjamo, Secretary General of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) rights group Seta, said movements like tahdon2020 are marginal.

"They’re still a minority, but very strong conservative opposition exists when it comes to rights of LGBTIQ persons and tahdon2020 is part of a broader movement to discriminate in the name of religion."

"But at the moment there’s no immediate threat of same-sex marriage being repealed," Tarjamo said.

That view is also shared by the conservative Christian Democratic Party, which staunchly opposed the same-sex marriage bill before it passed into law.

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During Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s administration, legislators rejected a citizens’ initiative to void Finland’s gender-neutral marriage law. The initiative to define marriage as only between a man and woman gained over 100,000 signatures. Image: Ella Mikkola / Yle

"Fighting to repeal it today would be a waste of time. Same-sex marriage is now legal in Finland,” Christian Democratic MP Sari Tanus said.

During Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s administration, legislators rejected a citizens’ initiative to void Finland’s gender-neutral marriage law. At the time, the initiative to keep marriage between a man and woman gained over 100,000 signatures.

However a recent Finnish government human rights report noted that one of the key changes for gender equality in Europe has been the rise of anti-gender movements opposing work for sexual and reproductive health and rights. The same actors oppose LGBTI rights.

"Far-right forces are forging alliances with conservative religious movements," Tarjamo said, adding that these partnerships could become a real threat to advancing the rights of the LGBTI community, women and reproductive rights in general.

The Finnish government report noted that anti-gender actors have mobilised to influence EU policy by advocating for the exclusion of language in EU resolutions that is supportive of sexual and reproductive rights. In Finland, the report singled out the True marriage (Aito avioliitto) association as one such movement. The group mobilised in an effort to block the same-sex marriage bill from passing into law and opposes same-sex couples adopting children. Gay couples gained adoption rights when the same-sex marriage bill passed.

This change has not been painless. Police are currently investigating Päivi Räsänen, a former government minister and ex-leader of the Christian Democrat Party, over a 2004 article in which she outlined her views on sexuality and marriage.

Police suspect there may be grounds to prosecute her for inciting hatred against a minority group, and that has made traditionalists in her party anxious.

Christian Democratic MP Tanus told Yle News that her party is concerned about the current state of freedoms concerning religious expression.

"People with different opinions, those who believe marriage is between a man and a woman are treated like second-class citizens by Finnish society and media," she said. "In a pluralistic society like Finland, those who believed marriage was between a man and a woman used to be entitled to their opinions. This is no longer the case."

Church: "There’s a loophole"

Officially, the Church has stuck to its position that marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman.

"The church’s position is that it does not accept same-sex marriage, but it has happened in practice," Tuomo Pesonen, a spokesman for Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, told Yle News.

You can listen to Yle News' All Points North podcast about the division in the Lutheran Church over gay marriage via this embedded player, Yle Areena, Spotify (siirryt toiseen palveluun), Apple Podcasts (siirryt toiseen palveluun) or your normal podcast player using the RSS feed (siirryt toiseen palveluun).

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"It’s a messy situation," said Jyri Komulainen, General Secretary of the Bishop’s Conference.

A decentralised organ, Finland's state church is divided into nine dioceses. Church spokesman Pesonen said that while some of these bodies have not reacted to priests performing same-sex weddings, others have admonished priests.

Pesonen said no clerics have been directly disrobed for performing a same-sex wedding. However, two priests who were admonished by their bishops for marrying a gay couple took the matter to the Supreme Administrative Court, which has yet to issue a decision.

"We need a new handbook"

Komulainen said the church is in a state of limbo -- waiting for the Supreme Administrative Court to hand down a ruling while also waiting for guidance from the Bishop’s Conference and debate in the Synod, which is the church’s highest governing body.

"If the church allows same-sex marriages, we need some revisions to our handbook [text] covering wedding rites," Komulainen said. "It is a fact that we are living amidst social change and today there are many different kinds of families."

Individual priests have interpreted marriage vows to also apply to same-sex unions, according to Komulainen.

"While these types of marriages violate church orders, they’re valid marriages by Finnish law," he explained. "In practice, there’s a loophole."

Rainbow priests: "The law is clear"

Samuli Korkalainen is a Helsinki-based Lutheran priest married to a man. Like Virtanen, he is part of an unofficial network of 75 self-proclaimed rainbow priests who have made it known they are happy to accommodate same-sex weddings.

"There is nothing unclear about the situation," Korkalainen said. "We wed same-sex couples all the time and it’s completely legal. Same-sex couples just need to reach out to us and we will find someone for them who will perform their wedding ceremony," he explained.

After initially struggling to find a priest willing to perform their ceremony, Tampere residents Stevens and Riikonen were relieved when they stumbled upon the network by accident.

"It was stressful, and very worrying, when we didn’t know if we would even have a priest to perform our wedding ceremony," Riikonen explained. "This wouldn’t happen for a straight couple, because they get the priest automatically when they book the church, and even get a replacement if the first one happens to be on sick leave."

The rainbow priests’ website urges same-sex couples looking to marry to reach out to their network instead of approaching the church directly, stating, “We are sorry our community is still incomplete in our understanding of diversity.”

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In June 2019, the week-long Helsinki Pride celebrations culminated in a massive procession in downtown Helsinki. Image: Teemu Silván / Yle

Helsinki University civil law professor Urpo Kangas concurs with Korkalainen that the situation lacks ambiguity.

"Marriage is a secular institution in Finland over which the church has no jurisdiction,” he said.

“The church is just following the situation from the sidelines. From a legal standpoint, they can’t do anything to stop priests from performing same-sex marriages," Kangas said.

Archbishop Tapio Luoma has said he believes that the Lutheran Church's opposition to performing same-sex marriage ceremonies could change.

"It’s difficult to say when, but my own estimate is that sooner rather than later we will be able to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies," Luoma added in an interview with Yle last summer.

Last year, membership in Finland's Lutheran Evangelical Church fell by 56,000. While previous surveys revealed that in addition to traditional reasons, many wanted to be part of the church because of its charitable work, nowadays just half of respondents cited this as a reason for membership.

"I don’t know why the church is so concerned with same-sex marriage when they have far more important work to do in Finland," civil law professor Kangas exclaimed.

2.3.2020 EDIT: An earlier version of this story stated that 85 same-sex weddings took place inside a church.