Bishops call for clearer safeguards on new rules allowing civil partnerships in churches

New regulations allowing civil partnerships to be celebrated on religious premises "can have no effect on Catholic churches" because consent to allow such ceremonies must be explicitly given. But the Government should be pressed to give a more explicit reassurance, according to a Briefing Note sent to peers by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales last week.

The Note was issued in advance of a motion to be debated tomorrow in the House of Lords which disapproves of the new regulations, known as the Ali amendment, which came into force on 5 December.

According to Baroness O'Cathain, who has tabled a motion challenging the change in the law, the Regulations leave faith organisations which do not consent to civil partnerships vulnerable in a number of ways (see our previous post). A letter signed by representatives of the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism -- the only three groups who will be taking advantage of the new regulations to allow civil partnerships on their premises -- have urged peers to reject Baroness O'Cathain's challenge. 

Civil partnerships, which are restricted to same-sex couples, give many of the rights and privileges of civil marriage but are distinct from them in a number of ways.  Until the recent change in the law, they could not be entered into on religious premises.

In a Briefing Note dated 7 December, the Catholic bishops' conference observes that the new regulations explicitly make clear that there is no obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships, that the consent of the General Secretary of the Bishops' Conference (pictured) would be required before any Catholic church could do so, and that the General Secretary "gave no consent for any Catholic premises to seek approval". Therefore, the bishops conclude,

In the absence of consent, there is no legal basis on which an application could be made in respect of Catholic religious premises, and no power for the local authority to consider such an application even if it were made. It follows that the Regulations can have no effect on Catholic churches.

The same also applies, the Note adds, in cases such as prison chapels where different Churches share the same premises. According to the Reguations, "no application can be considered in respect of any premises of which the Catholic church is a joint user, since the General Secretary has not given any approval".

The Note goes on to consider anxieties expressed by Baroness O'Cathain that licences to marry could be in future withdrawn from faith organisations by local authorities on discrimination grounds. But the bishops say their belief is that offering religious premises for civil partnerships is a "wholly private matter for the body concerned" whose decision does not constitute a service under the Equality Act.

"The fact that marriages are solemnized on religious premises should be irrelevant," the Note adds, "since Parliament has made entirely distinct legal provisions for civil partnerships and marriages". Should failure to consent to civil partnerships on religious premises come to be seen as contravening the Equality Act, the bishops add, it "would be contrary to the very clear assurances given during the passage of the Bill".

But if the Government down the line introduces same-sex marriages, the Note warns, "the same piece of legislation would govern both marriage as traditionally understood and same-sex marriages". 

The Briefing concludes that while the regulations allowing civil partnerships on religious premises provide "necessary legal protection", a future challenge could not be ruled out as "lobby groups will want to test the boundaries".  It would have been better for the Government to have set worries aside, say the bishops, by "including an explicit statement on the face of the Regulations ensuring there could have been no adverse construction" of a church not consenting. At the very least, the Note concludes, "Ministers should be pressed in debate to give very clear assurances to Parliament that this is the intention of the Regulations". 

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