A Northern Ireland council has rejected official legal guidance which states that its staff members are compelled to carry out same sex marriages.
The News Letter can reveal that Mid and East Antrim council has refused to accept advice from the General Registrars’ Office that there are no exceptions allowing civil registrars not to officiate at gay weddings if they have a religious objection.
At a closed-doors meeting this week the council instead instructed its lawyers to carry out their own investigations into the possibility of allowing its staff exemptions on the grounds of conscience.
The decision could potentially leave the council open to legal challenges following the legalisation of same sex marriage here.
Same sex couples across Northern Ireland are now able to register to marry with the first ceremonies expected to take place next month. It is understood that several councils have already received registrations.
While the Mid and East Antrim council meeting was held in private, the News Letter understands that some members were strongly opposed to accepting a policy which would compel staff to carry out same sex marriages against their wishes.
Alderman Paul Reid, pictured, who is also a church minister in Larne, said: “I can’t go into the specifics of the meeting or the discussions that took place in closed council.
“However, speaking generally this is an issue affecting the whole of Northern Ireland and each of our 11 council areas. This has everything to do with same-sex marriage, and at the same time nothing to do with same-sex marriage.
“This is an issue of conscience. Just because legal advice says something is ok, doesn’t mean it is right for councils to enforce on staff. Religious beliefs don’t come into it.
“While the General Registrars’ Office believes there to be no issue legally, it is absolutely wrong to force people to carry out duties which are at odds with their conscience.”
Because couples have to indicate their intention to marry 28 days before doing so, the first same sex weddings are expected to be held next month.
Last year MPs backed amendments which required the government to extend same-sex marriage here.