Filipino pastor seeks High Court protections for same-sex union ceremonies

A rainbow flag flies in Hong Kong. Photo via AFP.
A rainbow flag flies in Hong Kong. Photo via AFP.

The pastor of a local LGBT-inclusive congregation has filed an application seeking assurances from Hong Kong’s High Court that he is not at risk of arrest for performing same-sex marriages — and, if such assurances are not granted, challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance forbidding it.

The matter of being arrested for officiating a wedding isn’t merely an academic question for the pastor, Marrz Balaoro, who was arrested in 2017 for performing a same-sex marriage in contravention of the Marriage Ordinance. Balaoro, who is originally from the Philippines, was also investigated by the Immigration Department over the ceremony, though both it and prosecutors ultimately declined the pursue the case further.

Marrz Balaoro (right) speaks in a video about a charity for LGBT migrant workers in 2017. Screengrab via YouTube.
Marrz Balaoro (right) speaks in a video about a charity for LGBT migrant workers in 2017. Screengrab via YouTube.

The application, filed today, makes clear that Balaoro — who is a transgender man — is not asking that the “Holy Unions” he performs have legal status. Rather, it is only seeking explicit assurances that performing such ceremonies does not contravene Section 30 of the Marriage Ordinance, which states that it is a crime to knowingly perform a wedding in which the requirements of the ordinance are not satisfied.

“All we ask for is to be allowed to worship and practise our religious faith in the eyes of God, free from the threat of persecution,” Balaoro was quoted as saying in statement from his lawyer, Michael Vidler.

The filing goes on to set up a potential constitutional challenge to Section 30, stating that if Balaoro’s ceremonies are deemed to be in violation of the Marriage Ordinance, then the ordinance is “incompatible with the Applicant (and his parishioners’) rights to freedom of religion and equality” under the Basic Law and Hong Kong Bill of Rights.

Balaoro is the head of the Hong Kong branch of the LGBTS Christian Church, which, according to the statement, holds that “salvation is based on the good relationship amongst God’s creations irrespective of sexuality.”

The church was founded in the Philippines by the Rev. Crescencio Agbayani Jr., who also performs same-sex unions there despite such marriages being illegal in the deeply Catholic country (video below).

While LGBTS Christian Church is accepting of same-sex sexual relations, it, like most Christian churches, holds that they should take place within the bounds of a religiously sanctioned marriage. As such, according to a copy of today’s application, Balaoro has performed 13 same-sex unions in Hong Kong “pursuant to his strongly held religious beliefs.”

Support for legalizing same-sex marriages outright appears to be growing in Hong Kong, if gradually. A study last year by Hong Kong University found that about 50 percent of respondents were in favor of legally recognizing such unions, with support higher for other proposed protections for LGBT rights.

Last year, the Hong Kong government also made news by announcing it would begin recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions for the purposes of granting spousal visas. The change came after another request for legal review, also filed by Michael Vidler.

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