Gay marriage rights close to becoming law on St Helena

A bill to allow same-sex marriage on St Helena was approved by the island’s executive council on 5 December 2017 – raising the possibility that gay couples could legally wed within weeks.

The same bill will allow people to have their marriages solemnised at venues such as The Castle, the governor’s residence at Plantation House and hotels.

Exco’s vote cleared the way for a new marriage law to go before the legislative council for final approval at its sitting on 15 December 2017.

The decision was made only a day before Australia legalised same-sex marriage, provoking scenes of celebration that were reported around the world.

The existing law had resulted in a challenge in court – because it apparently assumed that any marriage would be between a man and a woman, leaving it unclear whether gay couples could marry.

A new law would settle the matter without the need for a court ruling.

The issue had sharply divided opinion on St Helena, with two petitions drawing similar levels of support for and against gay marriage.

If passed, the Marriage Ordinance 2017 will allow clergy to decline to perform a marriage ceremony if it is forbidden by their branch of religion.

This is the second attempt to pass a new marriage law addressing equality. An earlier version went before the previous legislative council in December 2016 but was withdrawn during later committee discussions.

After the 2017 general election, the new social and community development committee  (SCDC) was asked to look at the matter again.

Seven public meetings were held in October and two public petitions were organised – one in favour of equal marriage, the other opposing it.

A St Helena Government statement said: “Overall, there was no clear majority view, with similar numbers expressing support for enacting the marriage bill and for enacting legislation for civil partnerships.

“The marriage bill expressly permits two people of the same gender to marry; thereby ending the uncertainty that is the subject of current court proceedings. Although that is the most conspicuous feature of the bill, it also deals with other aspects of marriage.

“The bill provides that clergy may decline to solemnise a marriage (for instance between two persons of the same gender) if such a marriage is not in accordance with the rules or customs of the relevant communion or denomination.”

If the new law is passed, rules for approving non-religious premises for civil weddings and solemnising marriages will need to be approved by the executive council.

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