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A House Divided: Religious vs. Civil Rights of Homosexual Ministers in the Danish Folk Church

Today in Denmark the Evangelical Lutheran Church, known as the Danish Folk Church, continues its role as the national church in one of the most liberal nations in the world made official by the Danish constitution of 1849 and ever-present lack of a separate Church constitution. From Inner Mission programs to cemeteries, birth, marriage, death and the actual church buildings themselves, the Danish Folk Church permeates all aspects of Danish society. The interlinked nature of church and state has created church politics exercised by local ruling bodies called parish councils where civil rights and religious rights are at odds with each other. The issue of which right is more important necessarily involves defining current social values, here especially focusing on gender and sexual orientation issues within the Folk Church. How should the state interact with the Folk Church when homosexual ministers feel discriminated against by an organization that the state supports? Do not the same civil rights of non-discrimination in the workplace also apply to the Folk Church where ministers, deans and bishops are essentially civil servants? Is the Church a public space where all anti-discrimination laws should apply and what happens if there is a church-state separation? How does public participation in parish councils enhance feelings of discrimination among homosexual pastors and define their role? Lastly, how else does Danish society discriminate against homosexuals with regard to leadership roles and recognition of their relationships?

Answering each of these questions involves weighing the fundamental balance between religious and civil rights of the individual. Throughout this study, we maintain that civil rights are the more important of the two conflicting rights specifically when discussing the Folk Church as it is indelibly linked with the Danish state and enjoying a privileged majority status. According to Eva Maria Lassen, the fact that there has been no religious or political consensus about a constitution for the Folk Church means that the connection between church and state is very strong, especially given the fact that the head of state (the queen) has to be a member of the church. Parliament also holds a considerable amount of power to rule on church issues. Due to this special configuration, it should be the state’s duty to uphold civil rights at the expense of religious group rights in cases of gender or sexual orientation discrimination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. If not, a precedent might be set accepting discrimination against homosexuals and women in other civic arenas of Danish society. Currently, according to Thomas Rene Kristensen of the Institute of Political Science at Copenhagen University, even in parliament the discrimination of homosexuals is sidelined in relation to other minority rights. He astutely asks if politicians, especially the Christian Folk Party, for reasons of hypocrisy or opportunism are more concerned with racism than homophobia: “Do these politicians see homophobia as less disgusting than racism?”

International and Danish Non-Dsicrimination Law

As background for the Danish discrimination policy, the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, a revision of the original European Union Convention, states that “more effective action is to be taken to combat not only discrimination based on nationality but also discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation” adding though in #11 under the final act that, “The European Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.” In European court, according to Lisbet Christoffersen, Associate Professor of Social Science and Business Economics at the University Center of Roskilde, the outcome of cases of alleged religious discrimination typically results in the assertion that the individual maintains the right to withdraw membership, but not to change the conduct of the religious community which is the sum of individual rights, including the right to assembly. If this conduct is to be modified, there has to be a change of values attached to current European discourses. Isi Foighel, a former judge of the European Human Rights Court, believes that current European trends in the importance of social values and the impact they have on local and national politics along with human rights courts decide the margins of interpretation for all rights, both fundamental and moral, group and individual. For these reasons the current practice goes against the individual right not to be discriminated against if it clashes with traditional groups rights. 

Danish legal practice coincides with this EU human rights law since 1992. Recently, it was clarified in Danish law that the accused must bear the burden of proof in order to bring a case of gender discrimination according to Danish law #440 of 07.06.2001, §16. However, the Convention does not explicitly mention sexual orientation, but does refer to discrimination, both direct and indirect, based on gender. In relation to the Folk Church, so far there have not been any cases of precedent where homosexual and/or female pastors pursued this course of action. It is reasonable to assume that in the future if such action were to be taken, the Parliament would be challenged in their support of the Danish law against discrimination in the workplace defined in terms of “race, skin color, religion, political views, sexual orientation, national, social, or ethnic origin” as stated in chapter one, § 1 of the Danish Law of Prohibition of Discrimination in the Workplace. Danish law grants special treatment to religious and political parties by excusing them from paragraphs two to five of the aforementioned discrimination law. However, it limits this exception to institutions whose practices are compatible with EU courts as stated in chapter three, § 6, of the Danish Law of Prohibition of Discrimination in the Workplace. The Danish Gender Equality Law #388 of 30.05.2000 defends a balance of gender equality in employment if an institution is partly funded by the state. However, it could also be argued that the Danish Folk Church parish councils are free from this law according to a direct voting clause where the balance is no longer applicable. 

In contrast, the European Convention for Human Rights makes the Folk Church responsible for discrimination in its description of the limits of the right to religious freedom in Article nine, §2. It states that “freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” Therefore, when the parish councils discriminate against pastors for their sexual orientation or gender, they are violating the religious rights of those individuals and should be called on the issue regardless of democratic voting procedures mentioned in law #388.  

Furthermore, in relation to inclusion of women and, presumably, other minorities such as homosexuals in Church positions the bishop is allowed to abstain from supervision of a pastor that he finds unsuitable for teaching the Gospel. This follows from law #79 of March 1948, which is still in use. In practice, this law has been acquired by some conservative ministers and pastoral councils and used against the ordination of women in the Folk Church. Apart from this, discrimination based on merit is permissible in both situations so employers get the best applicants for the job with respect to education and experience, etc. In actuality, the female victory is very clear with no evidence of serious discrimination either of gender or merit. This is Bishop Svendsen's argument for not changing practice, and continuing to include conservative ministers who would feel that they cannot be ministers if they must sign an agreement to work equally with women, as is the current Swedish practice. 

These illustrations of EU and Danish law demonstrate the clash between religious rights and civil rights in the Folk Church and in general, at the expense of individual freedoms. This ideology pervades several areas within legal practices in the Folk Church. In cases of individual feelings of discrimination, so far the only proven option is exit from the Church.

Religious Rights and Civil Rights in the Parish Council

When debating the importance of religious versus civil rights according to Mikael Rothstein, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Copenhagen, one should keep in mind that “culture is not always religion, but religion  is always culture.” Should religions then be granted special rights that place them above other cultural rights and civil law, especially with regard to gender and sexual orientation discrimination in leadership positions? We would argue against this. The implementation of chapter three, §6 in Danish law should be challenged. Morten Kjærum of the Center for Human rights highlights the importance of a delicate balance between individual rights, both civil and religious: the individual’s right to freedom of religion and the individual’s right to not be discriminated. The direct connection of these civil rights with the state and the Danish Folk Church makes it impossible for this conflict between the two to be overlooked. Because of the high degree of influence the Danish Folk Church has, Kjærum says that it could be argued that civil rights are more important in this than in other religious institutions since collective rights are the sum of individual rights. The more influence an institution has, the higher the ethical demands one can place on that institution.

Therefore, we must deal with the current situation where the Danish Folk Church is socially and legally fully integrated in the Danish state, creating ethical dilemmas most evident in parish councils, the overseeing bodies for local parishes. According to the Folk Church website, there are approximately 2100 parishes and 1950 (670 women) ministers with a membership of 85% of the Danish population whose church tax supports the system. Unfortunately, these parish councils are characteristically composed of members elected by a minority of parishioners so that, as Rothstein says, ”those representing the millions of members are quite different from those they represent.” This is evident in the so-called “black” (fundamentalist) councils like the ones on Bornholm and in rural areas that do not allow homosexual, let alone women or remarried men to minister in contrast to more liberal city parish councils. However, degrees of conservatism exist where homosexual male ministers may gain employment by effectively concealing their sexual orientation, whereas a lesbian minister faces discrimination based first on her gender, then on her orientation. 

Some parish councils use the vague 1948 law in which it would be easier to discriminate against women and homosexuals by turning gender or orientation into conflicts with ideology or covering intolerance by claiming lack of skill. Dean Mogensen says that local councils are sensitive in hiring or firing homosexuals or women depending on the urban-rural tolerance divide in order to prevent parishioner outcry. In principle, Lisbet Christoffersen believes that freedom of religion is not a blank check in relation to the general law applying to all, and that the anti-discrimination practice should also be maintained within religious societies. This includes a balance between the two sets of practices and such a balance should be contextual and not automatically favor religious freedom over anti-discrimination law. In general, we agree, and propose that the balance between religious rights and civil rights should reflect common practice in society, leaning towards equality, especially in relation to the Folk Church, because of its majority status. 

To illustrate incidents of discrimination based on sexual orientation, at times involving gender discrimination, we interviewed Pastor Ivan Larsen, one of the most outspoken gay ministers in the Folk Church today, his dean Gert Blak Mogensen, Bishop Erik Norman Svendsen, Margrethe Tranberg, a lesbian pastor, and Lisbet Müller, a heterosexual female pastor, as well as Jens Christian Larsen, a conservative Evangelical Lutheran pastor. 

A Conservative Perspective on Discrimination

When considering minority rights, the conservative ministers have a minority group perspective, composing five to ten percent of the Folk Church. These individuals, often stereotyped as intolerant and discriminating against women and homosexuals, are themselves repressed. Pastor J.C. Larsen of the Kingo Church just down the road from Ivan Larsen’s more liberal parish is one of these ministers who believes that the Folk Church should hold some values that are not being secularized. Although he was not hired by some parish councils because of his fundamentalist views, including refusing to allow women and homosexuals to become pastors, he felt that this practice is justified ideologically. He does not condemn, but rather views homosexuals as another facet of his responsibility as a shepherd to all sinners in the Folk Church. It is interesting to note the extremism of Folk Church views where Saint Stefan’s Church celebrates the Copenhagen gay community and fosters interaction with the local Muslim population. On the other side of the spectrum, the Kingo Church houses a homosexual re-orientation program based on treatment therapy, called “Agape.” According to Lars Berthelsen, a church group representative of the LBL, the National Gay and Lesbian Association, it persuades the client that s/he is ill because of his/her homosexual desires, in need of a support group, should sacrifice his/her responsibility for choices, while stimulating work on small-scale abstinence goals using the Bible as a manual. This demonstrates some of the variety in ways that the Folk Church addresses homosexuality where a “black” congregation would even support an organization that not only discriminates against, but attempts to eradicate homosexuality from the community. How do homosexual ministers cope in the face of such adversity?

Homosexual Ministers Speak "Out"

Pastor Ivan Larsen proposes a highly positive view of coming out. He came out to his commanding officer as an army chaplain in Cyprus and his parish several years after his employment there when he had gotten to know the community at Saint Stefan’s. He did not divulge his sexual orientation during the interview process, which he said would lead the parish council to envision possible problems with his employment. His fears of being “out” were unfounded because both the army and the Copenhagen parish council already knew of his orientation and accepted him. Shortly thereafter, he attended a pastor’s union meeting where a four-hour debate ensued on the topic of whether or not they should conduct their opening service with a homosexual minister present. Despite this difficulty and a strong sense of being silenced in his university days, Larsen maintains that the issue of being gay within the Church community is not a private, but a public issue evident in his interviews with Politiken and works for the homosexual community. When confronted with questions of legislation against conservatism within the Folk Church, Larsen says that maybe it is better not to confront the conservatives and just leave them without publicity in order to prevent widening the divisions in the church and attracting undue support or attention to extremist views. This would keep the members of the church from polarizing into factions.  

In contrast to Larsen’s positive publicity, which has helped the entire homosexual community, his dean, Gert Blak Mogensen had an opposite experience when being ordained a dean six years ago. He made his sexual orientation clear in his application to become a dean and was accepted given his merits, yet some of the pastors at this time told the papers that they would not attend his ordination because he was a practicing homosexual in a registered partnership. By bringing his private life into work affairs, it required the employer to form at least an internal opinion about his sexuality. If it had not been for his registered partnership, as evidence of homosexual behaviors in practice, he claims that they would not have had an issue with his sexual orientation. He was the first gay dean in all of Denmark and, as a result, other ministers who would generally oppose gay pastors keep silent because they know that ordination authority lies in his hands. In general, he feels that he has not been discriminated and that his sexuality became a non-issue once everyone knew. Curiously, he told us that the local faction of the Conservative Party was the first to invite him to give a Christmas speech and include his partner on the invitation.

However, the limits of tolerance are not only tested by homosexuality. Mogensen sympathizes with conservative claims because he knows of fundamentalists who were discriminated against because of their ideology, which is seen as discriminatory by the majority of pastoral councils. This is an example of merit-based discrimination that is legal, in contrast to discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. Mogensen says that to accuse the parish councils of discrimination is difficult because they are elected democratically and have the right to think as they please according to aforementioned Danish Law # 388. In combination with the exemption of religious societies from the Danish Law of Prohibition of Discrimination in the Workplace, we find that in theory, this privileged position of religious rights could passively permit discrimination within the Folk Church. This fear is augmented by the confidentiality surrounding parish council meetings and minister employment procedure where elected council members tend to be more conservative than the parish they represent. The idea of democratic councils is reinforced by Bishop Erik Norman Svendsen’s pragmatic position when it comes to approving the council choice of local ministers. Bishop Svendsen said he does not make political statements with the hiring of homosexual or female ministers for the church, but rather bases his decisions solely on merits. However, he believes that one cannot rule out reasons for discrimination that are not based solely on merit. To monitor parish council autonomy, Mogensen said that the bishop sends out lawyers to evaluate and establish regulations for employment that are reviewed by the deans and put in practice.

A Woman's Perspective

Examining the situation of Margrethe Tranberg, a lesbian pastor in the Folk Church, blends the issues of gender and sexual orientation discrimination. Gender is one attribute that is almost impossible to hide in contrast to one’s sexual orientation. When a parish council interviewed Ivan Larsen and Gert Mogensen, they saw two men, but the fact that Pastor Margrethe Tranberg could not hide her gender like she could hide her sexuality. She said that, in general, the parish councils preferred male ministers with families to fulfill the positions and would not have chosen her for her present position had they known she was a lesbian. She also said that it is easier for gay men to get into ministry than women or lesbians, because “being a minister is a traditional male role and it seems more rebellious that women choose not to live with men than a man who chooses not to live with women.” Female ministers can be a threat to male authority by taking places of leadership in the religious community in addition to the perceived threat lesbian ministers post to traditional family values.

Pastor Tranberg felt that she experienced discrimination when she did not receive any of several pastoral appointments for which she was well qualified in the Folk Church. No one directly told her why she was not hired, but she was informally told that her orientation was the reason even though the council claimed they just disliked her preaching style. This highlights the issue of parish councils obscuring gender and sexual orientation discrimination with claims against the applicants’ merit. Consequently, she has been a pastor in the same parish for eleven years. Her sexuality, an issue that she believes is irrelevant to her profession, is now an issue she claims the pastoral councils are paying more attention. Despite this, she believes that having homosexual deans will limit future sexual orientation discrimination in the application process.

The Homosexual Pastor as Role Model

Apart from the theoretical legal aspects of discrimination, one important pragmatic question remains for the congregation; how is it possible for heterosexual people to look up to a homosexual minister? People generally think that it is impossible to follow a homosexual role model, yet there is always a discrepancy between age and gender  in identifying with the minister as a role model. Today, there is a general trend in not respecting the office of pastor now as much as in the past. Pastor Lisbet Müller described the fact that her children never discussed their mother’s occupation namely out of unease that she was a minister. Dean Mogensen responds to this question by saying, “it’s not about being a role model, but rather about being genuine in what you say and think and the correlation between your heart and mind. If you’re genuine in this way, you can teach people a lot of things regardless of gender or sexuality.” In this case, it is not about doing what a minister does, but doing what s/he preaches! 

Equality in Love?

Interestingly, all of the interviewed homosexual pastors and dean were in registered partnerships, making the practice of their sexuality public. The law for these partnerships was passed in 1989 and, according to Bishop Svendsen, they are seen as a respectable way of living, although not equivalent to marriage reserved for a man and a woman. Pastor Lisbet Müller represents the view among heterosexual ministers in the Folk Church that homosexuals should have the right to a blessed marriage or, better yet, the rules of civil registration followed by church wedding should apply to all couples homosexual and heterosexual and both types of couples should have the option of a marriage or a blessing. Presently, according to a letter from Bishop Erik Norman Svendsen to all of the pastors and deans in Copenhagen, there is to be no blessed marriage ceremony in the Folk Church and that pastors “ought to acknowledge each other’s freedom of conscience” in performing a partnership blessing. This tries to create a balance between all of the minority interest groups at work in the Folk Church from the homosexual ministers to conservative parish council members. However, inequality is still maintained according to Pastor Margrethe Tranberg who feels that not officially giving or receiving a marriage blessing in the church “puts homosexuals in a bad light. It’s as if our love is not as good as heterosexuals’ and we should not be allowed to get married.”

Considering Separation

In order to rectify the inequality that exists in the Danish Folk Church today, the separation of church and state has been proposed. It represents a physical and structural division drawn between religious and civil rights. Danish Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Margrethe Vestager, believes that because the Folk Church is a majority, there does not need to be full equality between the Church and the about fifty recognized faith societies in Denmark. She says, “if favoring the Folk Church would hinder the religious freedom of other recognized faith societies, then it would of course be a problem. But this does not seem to be the case.” She also seems to support the pragmatic view of the Folk Church’s current practice that as long as the support for the Church is managed in an inclusive and beneficial way for the state, “the state should not interfere more than it does presently with private matters like religion.” In our view, separating church and state might run the risk of more discrimination because church space would be privatized instead of public. According to Lars Berthelsen, even Bishop Kjeld Holm of Århus is worried that a small religious elite would dominate the Church, evading political control. In this scenario, more extreme factions within the Folk Church would be able to engage in discriminatory behavior without repercussions for some violations of individual civil rights.

Bishop Svendsen is opposed to the separation of church and state because he does not want to break the alliance they forged in 1536 with the Reformation. However, the status of the Folk Church within the state is problematic, because to this date, no constitution exists to define the relationship between the two. The lack of transparency in this relationship makes it all the more difficult to repeal the union. 

Pragmatically, Dean Mogensen believes that the economic connection is part of the reason for maintained connection, because it is cheapest for the state to rely on the church to register births and deaths and convert them to an electronic database, resulting in the loss of 2,000 jobs. For him, religious equality is illusory when 85% of the country holds membership within one church. Imagining a fragmented Evangelical Lutheran Church, consensus within smaller groups might lead to more representative and democratic practices in the congregations including individual autonomy to financially support the congregation of their choice. As a result, the more extreme congregations would lose official majority support and membership. However, a problematic scenario of competition for membership and financial resources might arise. Bishop Svendsen is opposed to the idea of fragmenting the Folk Church because he does not want to ostracize the conservative minority. 


Through the interviews and examination of the law, it is apparent that discrimination against homosexuals and other minorities is a topic deserving more attention in the Danish Folk Church. This is not an exhaustive study of the issue of civil rights discrimination in the Danish Folk Church, but rather a catalyst and invitation for further discussion and debate on the primacy of religious versus civil rights in this context. 

The primacy of religious rights is a result of historical links between religions and the power they exert in relation to the state. Therefore, current Danish and EU laws reflect the difficulties involved in breaking with tradition. The human rights trend toward individual rights has explicated the fundamental problem of whether some individual rights are more important than others and whether all of these rights should apply to religious society. In relation to the Danish Folk Church this is particularly problematic, because it is an 85% majority church and is under state domain. This special condition implies that the Folk Church is, in fact, public space and, therefore, civil rights law should apply. 

One reason why civil rights do not apply to the Folk Church in matters of discrimination is the fact that the population in general does not participate in the so-called democratic elections of the parish councils. In effect, this means that the general practice of the Folk Church holds more conservative values than Danish society. However, it should represent the majority of values held by at least 85% of the Danish people. Therefore, it should not be left to the esthetics of a parish council, but the majority in society and the law to set the agenda for the practice of the Folk Church. It seems that the more important discussion behind these issues is how to engage the members in voting for local councils. On an individual level, citizens of Danish society as members of the Danish Folk church need to take action as active participants in voting for members of the parish councils to best reflect social thought and tolerance of minority groups. This democratic shift of the balance between civil and religious rights will necessarily and justly fulfill the civil rights held by homosexual and female ministers as members of Danish society so they may fully participate in the Danish Folk Church as linked to the Danish national government.

In addition to popular participation in the Folk Church, another way for the Folk Church to be updated in its relation to social practices and progress is through the clarification of laws and practice involving the Church. For example, the 1948 law should be clarified so ministers can no longer use it to justify discrimination on the basis of religious conviction. We advocate that the promise given to the Church for its own constitution 152 years ago should finally be drawn up to create transparency and clarity in the conditions of the relationship between church and state, religious and civil rights. 

The civil rights of homosexual pastors within the Danish Folk Church are severely limited by the silence many feel compelled to maintain for fear of their local parish councils. Once there are spokespersons for homosexual rights like Ivan Larsen, then the doorway to an anti-sexual orientation discrimination dialogue is opened, but only a crack. It takes both the individual ministers and the parish councils to create an atmosphere favorable to the employment of all people regardless of sexual orientation - why the extreme focus on sexuality when it should be about personal merit and ability to communicate the Gospel? The traditional concept of the minister and his large family as a focal point among Protestants was the result of a revolution against the Catholic Church where celibacy was key. Now is the time when a new revolution is needed, one in which gay and lesbian ministers with, or without, children can coexist as full members of the church family with equal ministerial and marriage rights as well as respect and benefit from the same privileges and civil rights enjoyed by the whole of society.



Christoffersen, Lisbet. University Center of Roskilde, Associate Professor for Institut for Samfundsvidenskab og erhvervsøkonomi

Foighel, Isi. Human Rights Court

Kjærum, Morten. The Danish Center for Human Rights

Larsen, Ivan. Pastor of St. Stefan’s Church

Larsen, Jens Christian. Pastor of Kingo Church

Mogensen, Gert Blak. Dean of Nørrebro Provsti

Müller, Lisbet. Pastor of Lindevang Church

Rothstein, Mikael. Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Copenhagen University

Svendsen, Erik Norman. Bishop of Copenhagen

Tranberg, Margrethe. Pastor of Thimoteus Kirke


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