Civil partnerships will not be forced on Church, says May

by
17 February 2011

by Ed Beavan and Simon Sarmiento

THE Government announced this week that it plans to allow religious buildings to be used to host the registration of civil partnerships for same-sex couples.

The proposals, from the Govern­ment Equalities Office (GEO), emphasised that any changes would be “entirely voluntary”, and would not “force any religious group to host civil partnership registrations if they do not wish to do so”.

But the announcement received mixed reactions from Churches. The Church of England warned that such changes could lead to “inconsist­encies with civil marriage, have unex­plored impacts, and lead to confu­sion”. The Bishops had “consistent­ly been clear that the Church of En­gland should not provide services of blessing for those who register civil partnerships”.

A statement from the GEO said that the move was part of the Gov­ernment’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender action plan. It is de­scribed as “entirely permissive”, and would be introduced as part of the Equality Act.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that “no religious group will be forced to host a civil partnership registration.”

Speaking on Thursday to the Church Times, the Minister for Equalities, Lynne Featherstone, confirmed that there would be two separate streams of action.

Neither of these, she said, constituted government approval of “gay marriages in churches”, as some religious commentators had suggested.

One stream would implement Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Act 2010 by bringing forward, in the late Spring, draft amendments to Clause 11 of the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005.

There would then be a formal public consultation on this draft, before a text was laid before Parliament for approval. The regulations currently prohibit not only the use of religious premises for civil partnerships, but also the use (in any venue) of religious texts, such as Bible readings or hymns, or the participation of a minister of religion.

Ms Featherstone confirmed that the consultation would address all of these aspects. She stressed, however, that the key issue was to ensure religious freedom, both for those who wished to take advantage of these changes, and those who did not want to do so.

There was no question that any organisation, or any individual member of the clergy, would be under any Government compulsion to do anything.

Asked whether the Church of England would be able, under the new regulations, to opt out en bloc from the new provisions, the Minister said that this had yet to be decided, and would depend on the outcome of the consultation.

As a separate stream of activity, the Government was committing to a review of further possible changes to the law to bring civil partnerships and civil marriage more closely in line with each other.

Ms Featherstone emphasised that this was a matter of “early days and baby steps”. There was as yet no defined plan of activity, but the Government would consult very broadly and very carefully before proceeding further.

There would be detailed consultations with representatives of all the religious faiths, as well as with all other interested parties. If suggested changes to the civil arrangements impinged on the law relating to marriage in the Church of England, that would have to be taken into account.

This announcement, said the Minister, was simply a commitment to look further at the relevant issues, which were complex. The consultations were not working to any deadline, and would be allowed to take “whatever time it takes”.

Possible problems include the abil­ity of a bishop to discipline a cleric with freehold who chooses to register a church building as a venue; con­cerns that changes might move from being permissive to prescript­ive; and possible legal challenges to churches that refuse to host civil part­nerships.

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The Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that “no religious group will be forced to host a civil partnership registration.”

Speaking on Thursday to the Church Times, the Minister for Equalities, Lynne Featherstone, confirmed that there would be two separate streams of action.

Neither of these, she said, constituted government approval of “gay marriages in churches”, as some religious commentators had suggested.

One stream would implement Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Act 2010 by bringing forward, in the late Spring, draft amendments to Clause 11 of the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005.

There would then be a formal public consultation on this draft, before a text was laid before Parliament for approval. The regulations currently prohibit not only the use of religious premises for civil partnerships, but also the use (in any venue) of religious texts, such as Bible readings or hymns, or the participation of a minister of religion.

Ms Featherstone confirmed that the consultation would address all of these aspects. She stressed, however, that the key issue was to ensure religious freedom, both for those who wished to take advantage of these changes, and those who did not want to do so.

There was no question that any organisation, or any individual member of the clergy, would be under any Government compulsion to do anything.

Asked whether the Church of England would be able, under the new regulations, to opt out en bloc from the new provisions, the Minister said that this had yet to be decided, and would depend on the outcome of the consultation.

As a separate stream of activity, the Government was committing to a review of further possible changes to the law to bring civil partnerships and civil marriage more closely in line with each other.

Ms Featherstone emphasised that this was a matter of “early days and baby steps”. There was as yet no defined plan of activity, but the Government would consult very broadly and very carefully before proceeding further.

There would be detailed consultations with representatives of all the religious faiths, as well as with all other interested parties. If suggested changes to the civil arrangements impinged on the law relating to marriage in the Church of England, that would have to be taken into account.

This announcement, said the Minister, was simply a commitment to look further at the relevant issues, which were complex. The consultations were not working to any deadline, and would be allowed to take “whatever time it takes”.

Possible problems include the abil­ity of a bishop to discipline a cleric with freehold who chooses to register a church building as a venue; con­cerns that changes might move from being permissive to prescript­ive; and possible legal challenges to churches that refuse to host civil part­nerships.

When asked about the issue on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sunday, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that he did not want “somebody to tell me the Church of England must do it, or the Roman Catholic Church must do it, because actually that is not what equality is about”.

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Move­­­ment welcomed the proposals. Its chief executive, the Revd Sharon Ferguson, rejected concerns that they might infringe religious liberties. “No religious group, Christian or other­wise, will be forced to conduct civil part­­nerships. But the current situa­tion is an infringement upon the reli­gious liberty of those faith groups who are happy, and indeed keen, to con­­duct such civil-partnership cere­monies.”

The plans were also welcomed by the Quakers, whose Acting Recording Clerk, Michael Hutchinson, said that it was a question of “including all of our religious community in being able to publicly express their deep commit­ment”. He called on the Government to move further “to allow legal marriage for same-sex couples”.

A joint statement from Affinity, the Christian Institute, Christian Con­cern, Reform, and the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches opposed the move: it would bring the Government “into conflict with thousands of Evangelical churches and the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church”.

It called for churches that dis­agreed in conscience with the change to be “protected against the possibil­ity, now and in the future, of any kind of legal action” against them.

Changes to the law would apply only to England and Wales, and would require further legislation. The GEO is due to launch a for­mal con­sultation on the question in the spring.

Paul Vallely

Question of the week: Should civil-partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples take place in church?

Paul Vallely

Question of the week: Should civil-partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples take place in church?

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