Government bid to host gay partner ceremonies in churches will 'restrict religious freedom'

The Government will on Monday announce that henceforth churches and other places of worship will be allowed to host civil partnership ceremonies. The change to the equality bill, known as the Alli amendment, was passed in March 2010, and comes into effect on Monday without a debate or vote in the Commons.

Ten days later, on 15 December, peers led by Baroness O'Cathain will attempt to defeat the move, arguing that as a result of the change churches will come under increasing pressure to accede to requests by same-sex couples that they wish to register their civil partnerships on their premises.

The Civil Partnership Act of 2004 gave same-sex couples legal rights and privileges similar to married couples. But the Government of the time was keen to stress that a civil partnership was not the same as marriage.  One of the ways it sought to demonstrate this was by restricting civil partnership ceremonies to registry offices, on the grounds that a religious blessing would appear to make a civil partnership equivalent to marriage. Implicit in that restriction was a recognition that marriage is a natural institution, beyond the state or churches to redefine.

This Government, however, will on Monday lift that restriction, allowing those religious institutions who wish to offer their premises and ministers for civil partnership ceremonies to do so. Some Unitarian and Quaker congregations, as well as some liberal synagogues, will take advantage of the new law. But the Catholic and Anglican Churches have made clear that they will not allow civil partnership ceremonies on their premises.

The Government is expected to announce that there will be no coercion involved. The equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, said recently that the government was committed to removing the legal barrier to civil partnerships' registration on the religious premises "of those faith groups who choose to allow this to happen", adding it would be a "permissive measure" with "no obligation on faith groups to host civil partnerships".

But the idea that this move will increase religious freedom is strongly contested. By attempting to redefine marriage -- of which this is the first step -- the state is choosing to ride roughshod over the overwhelming, consistent view of all mainstream religions and denominations, that marriage is essentially conjugal, between a man and a woman. Athough a civil partnership ceremony in a church is still not, technically, marriage, it blurs the distinction to the point where it would be impossible for any onlooker to know the difference. 

Mark Hill QC, an ecclesiastical lawyer, has also pointed out that the law's effect will be to restrict religious freedom in very direct ways. In a submission to the House of Lords, he argues that the new regulation will curb the religious freedom of those institutions who oppose the move by making it less likely they would be allowed to be registrars. He said local authorities, compelled by equality laws to curtail discrimination, could decide not to allow a church to solemnise marriages "unless and until the proprietors of that place had sought and obtained approval for the registration of civil partnership".

That would mean, he said. "a curtailment of religious freedom in that it will compel faith groups either to cease their registration of buildings for the solemnisation of marriage and therefore their ability to celebrate a sacred liturgical wedding which has civil effect; or it will compel them to secure approval for the registration of civil partnerships despite their doctrinal objection to same-sex relations."

In this way, he said, "faith groups are placed in the invidious position of being dependent upon the discretion of each and every local authority, whose decisions in any event will be reviewable in the administrative court at the behest of any lobbyist."

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons the Conservative MP Edward Leigh has tabled an Early Day Motion, which has attracted five signatures, opposing the move.

In March next year the Government will launch a consultation paving the way for the introduction of same-sex marriage. The Catholic bishops of England and Wales, as well as Scotland, have made clear their categoric opposition to the idea.

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