LORD ALLI’s amendment to the Equality Bill, which allows civil partnerships to be registered on religious premises, if religious bodies wish to allow it, was approved during the Report Stage in the House of Lords on Tuesday by 95 votes to 21.
The proposed changes to the Civil Partnership Act had been significantly modified since the debate in January (News, 5 February). The scope is narrowed to England and Wales, and the existing rule that “no religious service is to be used while the civil partnership registrar is officiating at the signing of a civil partnership document” is retained.
An additional clause 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.” A further clause states: “Regulations may provide that premises approved for the registration of civil partnerships may differ from those premises approved for the registration of civil marriages.”
Lord Alli stressed that the issue was one of religious freedom. “Religious freedom means letting the Quakers, the liberal Jews, and others host civil partnerships. It means accepting that the Church of England and the Catholic Church should not host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so.”
Lady Butler-Sloss supported Lord Alli. “Same-sex couples can have strong and devoted relationships equal to, but different from, marriage, and they may wish to have those relationships sanctified by a religious ceremony.”
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth said: “Religious freedom is indivisible. If the Church of England claims it for itself, it ought to allow it for others. Some people have suggested that it undermines marriage, but, on the contrary, it strengthens marriage. The real enemy in our society is promiscuity, not permanent, stable, faithful relationships. These strengthen marriage.”
The Bishop of Bradford, Dr David James, warned of “unintended consequences” if the amendment was passed. “At the moment, however, civil partnerships are not in substance or in form same-sex marriages. There are some countries that have already introduced the possibility of marriage between people of the same sex, and no doubt some of those sympathetic to the amendment . . . favour that direction of travel. I do not, and neither do the majority of Churches and faiths in this country.”
Lady Morris of Bolton, for the Conservatives, did not think it was “the appropriate time to delve into the myriad complexities” that this issue raised. She noted that “it would automatically lead to increased pressure to change the civil marriage ceremony.” Lady Royall, for the Government, also resisted the amendment, which, she said, “would break the carefully established and maintained link between civil partnerships and civil marriages — the foundation of the civil partnership regime. That would lead to the anomalous position where civil partnerships could take place in religious premises but civil marriages could not.”
All parties were allowed a free vote. Dr James voted against the motion, and the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Martin Wharton, voted in favour. The Bill awaits a Third Reading in the House of Lords.
Professor Iain McLean, author of last week’s letter to The Times (News, 26 February), said: “To have achieved this result despite the opposition of both front benches and the bench of bishops is remarkable. I hope that the Conservatives in the House of Commons will also support it.”