Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church has taken to issuing warnings to priests who officiate at gay weddings. The last such case came to light last Monday, when a priest from Mikkeli in southeast Finland received a caution from the diocese for marrying a same-sex couple.
So far this year the church has reprimanded six clerics for officiating at gay weddings. Last year the Helsinki diocese also issued a reprimand to priest Kai Sadinmaa for the practice. His was considered the first case in which a priest was sanctioned for administering marriage vows to a same-sex couple.
The church has said that the priests in question have violated church rulings and guidelines. However from a legal perspective the issue is not as clear. Priests who officiate at weddings are seen as performing official duties and in such cases must comply with Finnish law.
In Finland, same-sex marriage has been legal since 1 March 2017. "Priests act appropriately when they use their official powers to marry same-sex couples," said Helsinki University civil law emeritus professor Urpo Kangas.
Kangas noted that marriage has a legal status and added that the current cases turn on a clash between secular and religious views.
Bishop: Priest committed official misconduct
Head of the Mikkeli diocese, Bishop Seppo Häkkinen said that priests in Finland’s Lutheran Evangelical Church have neither the right nor the opportunity to officiate at wedding ceremonies for gay couples.
"If a priest acts in violation with the given rules, then he has committed dereliction of duty. In such cases, the diocese must intervene," Häkkinen observed.
However legal scholar Kangas disagreed. "That statement is not accurate. A priest’s right to marry is not based on church law or regulations, but on marriage laws," he declared.
Kangas added that any employer has the right to caution an employee, but not necessarily in matters that which also relate to matters of conscience.
"It is entirely open to interpretation whether or not a priest commits official misconduct for marrying two people with the same gender," Kangas continued.
However Bishop Häkkinen stressed that in the view of the diocese, issuing a reprimand to errant clerics is not a violation of the law.
"On the contrary. We have observed the regulations of church law that bind our diocese council."