LORD ALLI has tabled a further amendment to the Equality Bill, designed to meet the concerns of Church of England bishops that the changes already proposed to the Civil Partnership Act (News, 5 March) would have “unintended consequences”.
The effect of the amendment is to require that the approval of individual religious premises for the registration of civil partnerships needs consents from a “person specified, or a person of a description specified” in new regulations to be laid before Parliament after consulta-tion with various religious bodies.
The present rule forbidding the use of any religious premises for civil-partnership registrations remains in force in the mean time. The amendment specifically allows for distinctions to be made, not only between religious premises and “other premises” but also between different kinds of religious premises. For example, the arrangements for Quakers might be different to those for Liberal Judaism. Nor would it be necessary for the regulations governing civil partnerships to be identical to those relating to civil marriages in the same venue.
A spokesman for the Archbishops’ Council confirmed on Wednesday that the amendment took account of discussions held with the Government. The Church of England’s concern, he said, was to ensure that the regulations provided for an opt-in or opt-out at denominational level. The C of E (and other denominations) wanted to be able to nominate a national body to declare a position on this issue, before individual applications could be made. This was what the Quakers themselves had done (Comment, 12 March).
On Monday, a Quaker spokesman said: “Quakers in Britain welcome ending the ban on the use of religious premises for Civil Partnerships. We hope that the Government will do all that it can to give this section practical effect.”
After the Report stage, the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, had warned that it would “open, not the Church of England but individual clergy, to charges of discrimination” if they refuse to host civil partnership signings in their churches.
In response, Lord Alli accused the Bishop of sensationalising the issue. And Professor Iain McLean said: “I am sure the regulations can be drafted so as to ensure that applications to conduct civil partnerships are only entertained from the highest judicatory of the denomination.”
The Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005 provides that “proceedings conducted on approved premises shall not be religious in nature”, and that they may not be led by a minister of religion. The amendment does not permit any change to this.
The amendment will be considered in the House of Lords next Tuesday at the Third Reading of the Bill. It is expected that the Government will again allow Labour peers a free vote, as the issue is one of religious freedom. The Bill will then return to the House of Commons where, because of the General Election timetable, the amendment may also need Conservative support to survive.