Civil Union Ceremony Sparks Protest in Conservative Northern Ireland

( [email protected] ) Dec 19, 2005 11:10 PM EST

Protests broke out Monday as two lesbians became the first gay couple in the United Kingdom to gain legal recognition under a civil union partnership.

Dozens of conservative Christians sang Gospel hymns and waved placards warning against homosexuality in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the first in scores legalized British civil unions took place.

Grainne Close, a social worker from Northern Ireland, and Shannon Sickels, a playwright from New York, were the first to benefit from the civil partnership act that passed the British parliament last year.

The law came into effect in Northern Ireland on Monday because the country has a shorter registration deadline in matrimonial law than to other regions of the United Kingdom. Scotland and England are expected to follow suit on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.

Northern Ireland, traditionally more conservative than the rest of the UK, was the last to legalize homosexuality, doing so only in 1982.

During the lesbian partnership ceremony, conservative Catholics and Protestants joined hands to oppose what they say is a threat to traditional family values.

"The fact is that God instituted human marriage in the Garden of Eden, and it was one man with one woman. God has not changed that," said the Rev. Ian Brown of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.

Meanwhile, homosexual activists countered by waving satirical placards that read, "Earth is flat" and "bring back slavery."

Civil unions are legal in some Western European countries as well as some states in the United States.

In the past, Christian evangelical groups, including the Evangelical Alliance UK, have warned that such unions are a forerunner to legalized gay marriage. The new British law gives "legal status" behind gay relationships and gives many legal benefits, such as tax cuts, of traditional marriage to homosexual couples.

Denmark in 1989 became the first country to legislate for same-sex partnerships. Several other European Union members have followed suit – Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.