Estonia became the first Baltic nation to pass a bill legalizing gay marriage last month; a first for the region. It was not unexpected: politicians had been stating that they wanted to pass the bill by the national midsummer holiday, Jaanipäev, on June 24.
The process was difficult, and a long time coming, with the local conservative opposition having been extremely vocal – and at times crude – in its resistance to the move. But constituent members of the coalition government prioritized driving it through and were ultimately successful.
From January 1, it will be legal to conduct LGBT+ weddings – including in Estonian churches. Individual clergy will still have the final say in whether to conduct same-sex weddings, although there are suggestions that the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) may discipline members of the clergy who do so.
But whether anyone will actually want a church wedding in Estonia is a different issue. An astonishingly low 6% of all marriages in Estonia actually take place in the church. In Latvia, only around 13% of people get married in church (Catholic Lithuania bucks the trend; Christian weddings appear to have been growing in popularity).
Why are Christian church weddings generally unpopular in the Baltics?
For context, these countries are historically resistant to religion (or any other external force, for that matter). The Baltic region was famously the last in Europe to Christianize. While they eventually succumbed by the 14th century, this was only after a protracted and brutal Teutonic campaign.
In modern times, they have also had to contend with a long period of Soviet-imposed atheism during Moscow’s 20th-century occupation. The Soviet occupier sought to erase religion from public life, closing seminaries and monasteries, and emptying churches, while Soviet settlers displaced native populations. This at the very least had an impact administratively and politically, if not spiritually too.
In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet occupation, civil ceremonies remained the only officially recognized form of marriage. In Lithuania, for example, it was only in 1992, when the constitution came into force, that there was a movement towards the recognition of church weddings, said Professor Inga Kudinavičiūtė-Michailovienė. She also noted that over the past 30 years, people have also chosen to cohabit more, without registering their relationship. This is despite the fact that the final years of communism saw something of a resurgence in religious interest.
In Lithuania, the Catholic faith and social conservatism tend to go hand in hand. More than 70% of the population officially consider themselves Catholic, while only 29% of Estonians say they are religiously affiliated. Here the predominant faith is Lutheran (more than 78% of the population were Lutheran in the 1930s, pre-occupation.)
While there is indeed (ostensibly) a high level of Catholicism in Lithuania, and apparently growing demand for church weddings, there is a concurrent growing demand for traditional, folk weddings too. Last year, Lithuania’s neopagan Romuva sought state recognition for its religion – a request that the country’s parliament again rejected in October. But interest has been continuing to grow at a small scale, high priestess Inija Trinkuniene told this author. Every year, more people are celebrating traditional festivals too (gravitation towards nature-oriented spiritualities could also be linked, in part, to a growing environmental awareness in the late Soviet period, especially post-Chornobyl).
Renewed Estonian interest in religion was largely Christian, but the 1990s saw Buddhist, ISKCON, Baháʼí, Jewish and Muslim congregations emerge (at a very small scale) and there was officially no state church. More generally, a “connection between Estonian national identity and anti-Christian attitudes,” appears ongoing. “Estonia is the most successful in separating religion and politics,” Oxford Analytica noted in 2021.
Aliide Naylor is the author of ‘The Shadow in the East’ (Bloomsbury, 2020). She lived in Russia for several years and now reports from Ukraine and the Baltic states.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.