Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a NZME. News Service journalist based in Auckland.

New law splits ranks of marriage celebrants

The drop in religion-based celebrants is being offset by increasing independents

The law which created marriage equality last August has prompted celebrants to make a choice about which weddings they want to be involved with. Photo / Alan Gibson
The law which created marriage equality last August has prompted celebrants to make a choice about which weddings they want to be involved with. Photo / Alan Gibson

Same-sex weddings have split the ranks of marriage celebrants.

Some celebrants have stepped down in opposition to same-sex marriage, although they are outnumbered by those signing up to marry gay couples.

New figures from Internal Affairs also show there are now hundreds more independent marriage celebrants - and hundreds fewer celebrants linked to churches and religious organisations - since a law creating marriage equality came into force in August last year.

The law change has prompted the resignation of a small number of celebrants, including Family First national director Bob McCoskrie, who has been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage.

But it has also attracted new celebrants keen to preside over same-sex weddings.

The Internal Affairs figures show the overall number of celebrants dropped by about 300 between February and June last year - a period that included the law being passed in April. However, the number of celebrants has since bounced back to near February 2013 levels.

There are now 303 fewer organisational celebrants linked to a church or religious organisation, but 272 more independent celebrants, who conduct more weddings.

However, Registrar-General of Births, Deaths, Marriages and Citizenship Jeff Montgomery, who signs off on every new celebrant, said some celebrants have chosen to state their stance on same-sex marriage.

"By far there's been more celebrants joining up because of the same-sex marriage changes than have been going off the books," he said.

"I've approved a number of celebrants who have applied specifically stating that they are keen to do same-sex weddings.

"There's also been a small number of organisational celebrants who have chosen to become independent celebrants so that they can do same-sex weddings - not large numbers, but some have said that.

By far there's been more celebrants joining up because of the same-sex marriage changes than have been going off the books. I've approved a number of celebrants who have applied specifically stating that they are keen to do same-sex weddings.

- Jeff Montgomery, Registrar-General of Births, Deaths, Marriages and Citizenship

"And we're aware of also a small number of celebrants who have chosen not to continue being a celebrant because they don't wish to do same-sex marriages - in very, very small numbers, but there's a few people in that category."

Celebrants Association president Elizabeth Bennett, whose group represents about 450 mainly independent celebrants, said no members had resigned over the issue.

"There's been great support for it - there was support at the time. A lot of members are conducting same-sex marriages as a result."

Mr McCoskrie, who did not renew his registration as a celebrant because he rejects the state definition of marriage, was not surprised by the figures.

"For some, there's a motivation to want to be involved in something new. For others they will be standing down based on personal conviction."

He said the drop in organisational celebrants could be due to people making a stand. Others who opposed same-sex marriage would still be considering how to respond, he said.

Christchurch man Brent Mitchell applied to become an independent celebrant because he wanted to perform same-sex weddings.

The former civil union celebrant is married to his same-sex partner but is yet to conduct a gay wedding himself.

"I've done straight marriages, so the irony is not lost on me."

None of the straight couples had asked him whether he was gay, and it was not a big deal, he said.

"It's actually more about your personality and affinity with the people and if you click, so you can fulfil what they're after as far as an ideal ceremony for them."

Retired Presbyterian minister Rob Yule, who has presided over hundreds of weddings over four decades, resigned as an organisational celebrant the day after the law change.

In his letter to the church executive, the Palmerston North resident said he could no longer be a celebrant because the state had ceased to recognise marriage as the union of a man and woman.

"I take this step with great sadness, remembering not only the joy of many weddings during my ministry ... but also facing the reality that my oldest granddaughters will be reaching marriageable age in the next decade."

- APNZ

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