Freedom to hold the registration of civil partnerships in places of worship

by
10 March 2010

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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.

ALAN FRASER
Chief Executive
Birmingham YMCA
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
Sutton Coldfield
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.

JACQUELINE HUMPHREYS
General Synod member for Bristol diocese
St John’s Chambers
101 Victoria Street
Bristol BS1 6PU

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