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  • June 2019: Religious Associations in the Debate about Same-Sex Unions in Estonia

The issue of recognising same-sex unions has been discussed in Estonian society since the early 2000s. In 2005, the new draft of the family law declared marriage as a union between a man and a woman, whichand initiated a public debate of how same-sex unions should be recognised. The Estonian constitution, which was passed in 1992, does not specify that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but it declares that ‘family’ is under the protection of the law. Family, again, is not in any way defined. The first phase of the discussion ended with a proposition made by a number of NGOs to draft a new partnership law and give all couples equal rights.
The second phase began in 2008, when the Ministry of Justice announced that it was working on a separate law to recognise registered partnerships of same-sex couples. The law, for example, provided inheritance and shared property ownership rights to same-sex couples. When the draft was made public, both the churches separately and the Estonian Council of Churches (ECC), representing 10 religious associations, passed a declaration on the issue, stating that they were opposed to the law to recognise registered partnerships. According to the ECC, in the Bible, homosexual practices were considered a sin and therefore the ECC could not support any other family regulations than the one between a man and a woman.
In autumn of 2010, there was a clash in the Lutheran church when Rev Heino Nurk, who had been ordained in 1983, was fired because the government of the Lutheran church said that he had gone against the doctrine and ethical norms of the church. In the summer of 2010, Nurk had registered a Society of Gay Christians, whose members asked for equal rights for heterosexual and gay Christians within the church.
This was followed by two petitions, both published by the Lutheran clergy on a special petition internet site in September 2011. First, the Humanist Christian Petition called the church to recognise different views, regardless of sex, education, sexual orientation, etc., so that all Christians would feel welcome and have equal rights in the church. Likewise, every church member had the right and obligation to hold a view on the matters of the church. The petition also dealt with the issue of the Bible, saying that in the Bible one needed to distinguish the social norms of the time when the Bible was written and timeless religious norms. A few days later, a petition of traditional Christianity was released. That petition said that religious freedom of the last decades could lead to a dead end and therefore it was necessary for the church to stay firmly behind its traditional position, which according to the petition the church had always held. The Bible was to be read with ‘religious eyes’ and it was certainly necessary to consider it as a basis in formulating social norms.
After the interference of the Chancellor of Justice Indrek Teder in May 2011, with his request that the Ministry of Justice should introduce a civil partnership law, because the current situation, which did not legally recognise same-sex relationships, contradicted the Estonian constitution, a new and more heated public discussion began. By 2012, the Ministry of Justice had a draft of the law ready which reached the parliament by spring 2014. It was called the Registered Partnership Act (Kooseluseadus).
In 2014, before the law was ready to go to the parliamentary session for voting, the ECC sent an open letter to the parliament, and once again declared its support to the so-called traditional family and marriage between a man and a woman. Other questions were asked in the letter: how would it be guaranteed that the old way of understanding family and marriage would not be overruled, and that the new law would not cause mistrust and intolerance? What were the next steps planned? How did the law affect children, and their rights for an equally natural treatment by their fathers and mothers? How did it affect adoption?

During the discussions, the NGO Society for the Protection of Tradition and the Family (SPTF), ran by conservative Catholic circles, was established. It helped to set up a united stand for the conservatives, who in spring 2014 started a campaign against the Registered Partnership Act. A petition on paper was sent to thousands and thousands of homes, to be signed by those who supported the cause promoted by the SPTF. Altogether nearly 37,000 people expressed their support to the petition. A few years later, the conservative website Objektiiv was launched, which is still run by the SPTF, publishes articles against abortion and the current politics of the European Union, and is strongly anti-immigration.
The Registered Partnership Act was submitted to the Parliament on 17 April 2014 and was passed on 9 October (40 for, and 38 against). Several members abstained from voting. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves signed the act on the same day, and it took effect on the 1st of January 2016.
However, the adoption of the act did not mean that the discussion and a severe contradiction between different social groups ceased to exist. There are two lines of development to follow. One is related to the Registered Partnership Act, and the other one to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia.
The Registered Partnership Act took effect without implementing measures, and was, therefore, likely to cause a number of legal problems. In 2015, the new government, now including the conservative party Pro Patria, decided that the parliament, and not the government, should pass the measures for a full implementation of the law. So far, it has not happened, and after the parliamentary elections in March 2019, with an even more conservative government and parliament than earlier, it will probably not take place in the coming years either. At the same time, in spring 2018, the Estonian Supreme Court ruled that the law was still in effect and should be enforced, despite the lack of implementing measures.
The position of religious communities has become more diverse. Over the years, the number of clergy who publicly declare their support to the Registered Partnership Act has risen. In this respect, the Lutheran Rev Annika Laats received the most supportive and condemning reaction, when in October 2017 in a TV show she asked from a young ECP politician why he was condemning and frightening people on the issue of gays and the act. The Lutheran church asked Laats to its government meeting, but did not take any action. At the same time, theological discussion over the matter has remained quite modest, so that only a few scientific articles by biblical scholars from the University of Tartu and the University of Tallinn have been published, but they have largely been ignored by religious associations, or caused dissatisfaction, arguing that the faculty of theology at the University of Tartu is too liberal.
By 2017, there appeared an old aspect newly discovered, namely the aim to change the constitution. The issue was raised by Urmas Viilma, the archbishop of the Lutheran church, who was the first to affirm that same-sex couples needed protection too, but to do that religious associations needed to be sure that the state of marriage would be protected by the law and would only mean a man-woman union. During its parliamentary session, the Lutheran church proposed that the constitution should be altered, so that it would include a definition of marriage. Although the idea received support from the church and has by now also received support by the ECC, it has angered the most conservative voices, who already in 2017 and thereafter have repeated that the Registered Partnership Act has to be abolished. They are supported by the CCP. At the same time during the parliamentary session of the Lutheran church Rev Mart Salumäe gave an interview to the Estonian National Television and claimed that even during the Soviet occupation period the church had not been as hostile and angry towards minorities as nowadays and there had always been gay pastors in the church, some had even held a rank of a dean (the Lutheran church consists of deaneries). Annika Laats was amazed over the church’s attempt to regulate the life of those who do not belong to the church (According to the 2011 census, only 29% of the population claim that they belong to a certain religious association, more than 95% of them are Christians).
After the parliamentary elections in March 2019, the ECP as a government party has begun to fight to change the constitution in order to add the possibility of an easier way to organize a referendum to either pass or abolish laws. They have come out loud, hoping to abolish the Registered Partnership Act. However, to change the constitution it has to get a majority in two following parliaments, so that the issue has to receive the majority of votes of the parliament, which will be elected in 2023 too. So far, the constitution has been altered only a few times, and it has always been after a wide agreement between all political parties has been reached.

Source: Priit Rohtmets. Eesti usuelu 100 aastat. Tallinn: Post Factum, 2019.

  • March 2019: Churches in the Estonian 2019 Parliamentary Elections

Parliamentary elections were held in Estonia on 3 March 2019. More than ever before, churches and religious organisations publicly presented their views and, although openly no church favoured a political party, churches wanted to have an influence in promoting parties with views similar to their own.
Estonian society, similarly to many European societies, is going through a period of antagonism, with a rising right-wing Estonian Conservative People’s Party (CPP) that is opposing to Estonian mainstream politics, and claims to offer a conservative and nationalistic alternative. CPP describes the current political mainstream as a globalising and left-wing liberal policy. In its rhetoric, the conservative party has become very loud, and it turned the campaign for parliament into a confrontation based on the so-called traditional values. The CPP loudly supports the abolition of the law recognizing same-sex unions, reducing money given for abortions, and defining the marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In its rhetoric, the CPP is against the European Union.

Although a few pastors stood for parliament (most of them belonged either to the CPP or to a more moderate conservative party Pro Patria), Christian religious communities in general, which form up to 95% of Estonia’s religious landscape, presented their views in a public letter, signed in September 2018 by the Estonian Council of Churches (ECC). The letter was sent to political parties represented in the parliament, and reflected the Council’s view on the subjects considered the most important before the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2019. The Council has an agreement contract with the Government of Estonia, signed in 2002, and another contract with the ministry of Justice was signed just a month before the elections and is the major partner of the state in religious affairs.

The council paper held 9 propositions (in Estonian):
1. In legal practice, the freedom of conscience and religion should be implemented in all possible cases and in a balanced context of other freedoms (lately the balance in Council’s opinion has not been adopted – for example in the case of law on the equal treatment, which has not yet been implemented but has been negotiated).
2. The state must value marriage and family as the basis of the society. The council supports the proposition to change the constitution in order to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Estonian Health Insurance Fund should finance pregnancy crisis counselling in favour of financing abortions. The council also thinks that family strengthening programmes should be better financed, and that shelters for women and young mothers should be financially supported.
3. Religious education at schools, which is a voluntary subject, should be more easily available. This requires an analysis of what measures should be implemented to increase the number of public schools teaching religion.
4. The state should value more the participation of religious organisations in local communities. As the churches have a network covering the country, the measures of social services and youth and cultural work need the support of the state, because sometimes the help given by the local government is not enough.
5. In legal practice, the exceptional position of religious organisations should be taken into account.
6. The council supports the continuation of the project to renovate sacred buildings, because they are a part of Estonian cultural heritage. The project ended in 2018, and in the future the renovation of sacred places is not separately financed.
7. To implement a ‘rule of a percentage’, so that a person could according to their wish give 1% of their income to an NGO of their choice. The donation could be divided between three organisations maximum. The donations received by pensioners and people with low income should be reimbursed by the Estonian tax and Customs Board. (It has to be noted that, already in 1919, the Republic of Estonia implemented a law according to which it was the business of religious organisations to collect the tax from their members. The same policy was implemented after Estonia regained its independence in 1991.)
8. The council supports the creation of a hospital chaplaincy in each hospital. Currently there are only a few chaplains working in larger hospitals. The council also supports the idea to create a chaplaincy for schools and asks the state to help to work out the necessary measures.
9. The value tax paid for the renovation of sacred buildings should be returned to churches. This would motivate religious organisations to invest in renovating their buildings.

The proposals soon had a follow-up when in February 2019 Urmas Viilma, the archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the leader of the largest church among Estonians, published a “Compass for Christians” (see Delfi and Meie Kirik), where he had analysed the programmes of political parties and put them in the context of the propositions made by the ECC.
He gave 0 to 3 points to each proposal made by the ECC, which he found in the party programmes. He gave 0 to parties who did not favour the proposal or held a view opposite to it. One to two points were given when parties had similar proposals or supported the proposals to an extent that the implementation of the proposal was realistic in the coming future, and 3 when there was a total overlap of the ECC proposal and party program. The results turned out to be in favour of the ruling Centre party with 32 points, Pro Patria with 28 points, social Democrats with 19 points, Free Party with 15 points, CPP with 14 points and a new political party, Estonia 200, with 6 points.
While most of the political parties did not comment on Viilma’s compass, Estonia 200 and CPP claimed that the archbishop was just complying with the ruling parties, who had financially supported the church by ending a discussion over a church in central Tallinn with a compensation. (See Delfi, in Estonian.) As a result, an ultraconservative webpage Objektiiv, which has been since its launch in 2015 until November 2018 led by the Lutheran pastor Veiko Vihuri, questioned the archbishop’s decision to rate Christian values as important as, for example, the renovation of church buildings. The webpage called the compass, “depressingly primitive and obedient”. In response, the editors of Objektiiv, which represents the views of the most conservative Christians, created their own compass, claiming that the CPP represented best the views of Christians. The compass was sent by post mail to most of the Estonians.
The elections turned out in favour of liberal parties – the Reform Party got 33,7% and the Centre Party 25,7% of the votes. However, the two liberal parties were not willing to unite, because the current Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party) wanted to remain Prime Minister and, therefore, was willing to form a coalition with the moderate pro-Patria (11,9% of the votes) and the CPP (18,8%). The social democrats got 9,9% of the votes. This caused a storm in Estonian society, which continued for months after the elections.
Urmas Viilma compared the coalition agreement with the propositions of the ECC, and published a “Christian coalition agreement”, eventually claiming that the coalition agreement between Centre Party, pro-Patria and the CPP had mentioned 2/3 of the ECC propositions as something they would like to tackle over the coming years.

D 25 June 2019    APriit Rohtmets

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