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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Gay civil partnerships to be allowed in churches

Following a Government consultation under the Equality Act 2010, (same sex) civil partnership ceremonies will be permitted from 5 December 2011 in church and other places of worship. The current ban on ceremonies in places of worship will be lifted by virtue of enabling legislation authorised under the Equality Act. Contrary to scaremongering publicity, neither the Act nor the enabling legislation contained any provisions to compel any religious body to have a civil partnership conducted on its premises.

Liberal Jewish groups, Quakers and other Christian organisations lobbied for the right to host civil partnerships with religious readings and hymns. However, the Church of England has warned that it will not bless same-sex couples. The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales also opposes the change.

The NSS submitted a response to the Government’s consultation on civil partnerships that preceded this change. We recommended that individual ministers should be allowed to decide whether to allow the ceremonies rather than religious groups being allowed to opt out en bloc. We wrote in the response: “‘Each faith group represents a spectrum of beliefs and believers. Individual places of worship or ministers may be entirely willing to provide this service for members of their congregation or others. By permitting whole groups not to opt in, the views of their leaders only — often the most orthodox — will be given precedence”‘. However, this recommendation was not adopted.

NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood commented that “The churches" internal affairs are not a secular matter but they will now be able to use the law of the land to impose doctrine on parishioners even though polls show that the majority don’t agree with that doctrine. For example, a recent survey found that only 11% of Catholics supported the doctrine that homosexual acts are morally wrong”.

The applicant for the ceremony will be required to include the written consent of the appropriate body of the faith organisation or a signed statement to the effect that no consent is required and provide the necessary supporting documentation.

The change comes ahead of plans to give same-sex couples the right to marry, necessitating an end to the legal definition of marriage as the union of a man and woman. The Government has now committed to publishing a consultation document in March 2012 on equal civil marriage. As we reported, this has caused angry outbursts from some churches, particularly the Catholic Church in Scotland.

It is estimated that about 1,500 civil partnerships a year will take place in places of worship after the ban is lifted, a very much smaller number than would have been the case if the two largest denominations, Anglican and Catholic, had not banned them. Keith Porteous Wood commented: “As the Anglicans and Catholic laity and indeed many of the clergy are at complete odds with their hierarchies on this issue, I would be astonished if there are not attempts to usurp the ban they have imposed.”

The full government response to the consultation can be read here.

Published Fri, 04 Nov 2011