From the Revd Alan Fraser
Sir, — Lord Carey spoke out last week against the perceived erosion of religious freedoms in this country. It is, therefore, ironic that, when Parliament was debating a Bill to extend religious freedom, the loudest voices against it came from the Bench of Bishops.
I cannot be the only person to be bemused by the opposition of the Bishops of Bradford and Winchester to Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill. Their suggestion seems to be that granting other religious organisations the ability to host civil-partnership ceremonies somehow undermines the position of those who do not wish to do so.
Even if this were true (and I am not sure it is), it is difficult to see why this argument was a legitimate excuse for restricting a religious freedom that has been requested by religious groups themselves.
The Church of England’s position on the hosting of same-sex unions or blessings is clearly stated and remains lawful. As licensed ministers, we will all be expected to continue to abide by it, whatever our personal views. The position of Quakers and Unitarians is equally clear, however. Whatever one thinks of their theology, it seems eminently sensible that they should be given the freedom to practise their religion as they see fit, irrespective of the Church of England’s opinion.
To read the Bishop of Winchester’s comment that “churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, the distinction between marriage and civil partnership,” you would think that the Test and Corporation Acts had never been repealed, and that there was still an Anglican legal hegemony in the land. But it also ignores the reality that there are many religious organisations that are not churches, even within the Christian community.
The YMCA’s vision is to be an inclusive Christian movement. Many individual YMCAs have Christian chapels or prayer rooms that are used for a variety of religious purposes. I cannot see why the type of religious ceremony that we choose to hold in them should be unreasonably proscribed by statute, nor why we should be compelled to act in accordance with a theology that is not our own.
It is reasonable for the Church of England to seek exemptions from legislation that it feels impinges on matters of religious belief. What I find inexplicable however, is the Bishops’ insistence that gay couples should be denied the opportunity to go elsewhere to celebrate their union before God, even when there are religious organisations that are happy to facilitate their doing so.
Will Steel House, Aston
Birmingham B6 7LZ
From Mr Donald E. Draper
Sir, — I write as a solicitor of some years’ standing to allay the fears of the Bishop of Bradford regarding Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill. Concern is expressed regarding the “unintended consequences” of the amendment, principally that it will inevitably lead to the prosecution of clerics under human-rights legislation if they refuse to conduct civil partnerships in their churches. It is unclear to me how this conclusion can be drawn from the amendment, and I fear the Bishop may be conflating two entirely separate issues.
First, it is clear that under the Human Rights Act (HRA) people have the right to sue just about any organisation or individual — including the Church and/or an individual minister — if they believe that their human rights are being violated by them. The Church, therefore, can already be sued under existing legislation, and it is, indeed, probably inevitable that at some point a campaigning group or individual will seek to challenge the Church’s treatment of homosexuals using the HRA.
None of this, however, has anything to do with Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill, which does no more than give those religious organisations who wish to the ability to host civil partnerships.
The grounds for legal action by homosexual couples and its likelihood of success are not increased one iota by that. This is because Lord Alli has specifically sought to avoid the scenario of religious organisations’ being sued as a result of his amendment by the insertion of a clause that reads: “For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so.” Therefore, the chances that any couple will successfully argue that the Equality Bill as amended gives them the legal right to have their civil partnership hosted by a specific religious organisation are as close to nil as makes no difference.
So, while the Bishop argues against an amendment that is specifically formulated to increase religious freedom, he does so on the grounds of apparent objections to the effects of another piece of legislation entirely — a piece of legislation that the Church has never opposed.
DONALD E. DRAPER
Fairlawns, Combine Close
West Midlands B75 9TJ
From Jacqueline Humphreys
Sir, — Civil partnership is a unique legal status whose nearest equivalent is marriage. It is legal nonsense to seek to equate civil partnerships with blood relatives, as Clive Scowen and Dr Philip Giddings sought to do in their speeches to the General Synod (repeated by Mr Scowen, Letters, 26 February).
Whatever the difference theologically between marriage and civil partnership, two fundamental truths underpin any dispassionate legal analysis of the situation. First, civil partnerships were specifically created to remedy the practical injustices experienced by some people in same-sex partnerships who wished to marry each other, but could not do so.
Second, the practical consequences of marriage and civil partnerships are identical because the Civil Partnership Act 2004 deliberately replicates each legal consequence of marriage for civil partnerships. The only ongoing anomaly now for some civil partners is that they continue to have poorer benefits under their partner’s pension than spouses in the same situation.
The differences between blood relatives and civil partners are also plain. A civil partnership is entered deliberately and publicly. Specific formalities are required. Both parties must properly consent to entering a civil partnership. In contrast, blood relationships exist by reason of birth, irrespective of consent or desire. If a house-sharing sibling wishes to marry, he or she may do so. If a person in a civil partnership wishes to marry, he or she must go through a legal process identical to divorce in order to be able to do so.
The injustices suffered by dependent blood relatives should be addressed directly on their merits. Their cause is not advanced by suggesting a false equivalence to civil partnerships.
General Synod member for Bristol diocese
St John’s Chambers
101 Victoria Street
Bristol BS1 6PU