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Bishop seeks registrar opt-out

21 June 2013

CHURCH OF ENGLAND

THE Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens (above), has moved an amendment to the Government's Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill to prevent the forcing of local-authority registrars with a "sincerely held religious or other belief" to officiate at same-sex marriages against their wishes.

It is one of a number of amendments dealing with conscience being debated by Peers during the Bill's Committee Stage in the House of Lords.

Another, from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, would amend the 2010 Equality Act to make clear that a person would not be unlawfully discriminating if he or she did not conduct blessings for same-sex marriages.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, has moved an amendment to introduce a "parental presumption", so that a partner in a same-sex marriage would "assume all the responsibilities" of a parent to children born to, or adopted by, the other partner, including the "obligation to care for and provide for the child as their parent" if the other partner died.

On the first day of debate during the committee stage on Monday, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, supported amendments, subsequently withdrawn, that would have introduced different words to describe same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, in order to limit the "ideological damage".

"Since marriage has been defined in law and practice as a relationship between a man and woman, marriage, as so defined, cannot in law be extended to same-sex couples. The draft legislation presupposes an account of marriage that makes the gender of the partners incidental to the institution," Dr Sentamu said.

"This, to me, is a novelty. It does not correspond to marriage as it has been known in British law and society. This is not an extension of something that already exists but the creation of a new institution, under the aegis of existing marriage law, which is in fact quite different from it."

He said that, unlike the legislation that had introduced civil partnerships, the same-sex-marriage Bill would not remedy any injustice: "Ministers of the Crown have argued that the legislation extends to an excluded minority a concrete privilege currently enjoyed by the majority. What is that privilege? The privileges that accompany marriage have already been extended to same-sex couples through civil-partnership legislation."

A report by Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights urged the Government to introduce amendments to the Bill to safeguard conscience and belief. The Committee acknowledged the concerns relating to civil registrars, and said: "Although we do not come to a final conclusion on whether additional protections are required . . . we recommend that the Government reconsider these issues with a view to bringing forward amendments . . . to put in place transitional arrangements which deal with these concerns for those in post as registrars at the time any legislation is passed."

It also called on the Government to consider strengthening the protection of religious organisations and individual ministers in areas outside the scope of the Bill, such as ensuring that local authorities do not prevent hiring of premises or entering into contracts with religious groups that have not opted in to same-sex marriage.

While the Lords are continuing to deal with the detailed scrutiny of the Bill, outside Parliament the campaign against same-sex marriage continues. Anglican Mainstream placed an advertisement in The Times on Monday to launch "Gay Marriage No Thanks", an "informal group of professionals and parents" seeking to "put the wellbeing of children at the centre of the same-sex marriage debate".

The group's spokesman, Alan Craig, said that debate about the Bill had concentrated on the rights of adults: "What about the rights of children? . . .We want to take some of the emotion out of the debate and help people engage with the actual evidence that shows how disruptive and damaging these changes will be for children and young people."

The Lords will continue their deliberation of the Bill's Committee Stage on Monday.

Civil partnerships. The Government's Equalities Office has announced that its review of civil partnerships, promised as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill progressed through the House of Commons, will include "a full public consultation".

"We are currently conducting policy analysis and gathering evidence," would be used to prepare a consultation document, to be published in the autumn after the same-sex marriage Bill received Royal Assent, a statement said.

The consultation and commissioned research will be analysed before a report of the outcomes is published, and a decision about the future of civil partnerships, is taken by winter 2014.

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