The heads of a university closely aligned to the Church of England plan to ban civil partnership ceremonies on campus.
The vice-chancellor, chair of governors and deputy pro-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University argue that the Church's position on homosexuality makes it wrong to conduct the ceremonies on the university's premises, reports Jessica Shepherd for the Guardian newspaper.
They want governors of the university, whose chancellor is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to change the institution's policy at their meeting next month.
The news comes after some Christians failed in a bid to gain opt-outs from new equality regulations, which sought to allow Christians to withhold goods and services from gay and lesbian people.
Canterbury Christ Church currently offers its premises for civil marriages at its campuses in Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells. From spring 2007, new legislation will forbid institutions licensed for civil marriage ceremonies to refuse to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.
The university's plans have incensed academics and students, who say a ban would flout the institution's equal opportunities policy and damage its reputation. Representatives of the lecturers' union, the student union and Amicus, which represents private and public sector workers, have called on the vice-chancellor, Professor Michael Wright, the pro-chancellor and chair of governors, Bishop Stephen Venner, and the deputy pro-chancellor, Peter Hermitage, to retract their plans immediately or resign.
In a letter to staff and students, seen by Education Guardian, the vice-chancellor writes: "The university's governing body is currently considering its policy on using the university's premises for civil partnership ceremonies.
"When the law changed in 2005 to permit same-sex partners to register their relationship, the Church of England welcomed this as a means by which people in such relationships could publicly express it, and have it regulated by law. It was said that a civil partnership was not to be regarded as a marriage.
"At that time, the chairman of the university's governing body, Bishop Stephen Venner, and I decided that we would follow the church's position in this matter, ie, welcome the concept of civil partnership but not regard it as equivalent to a marriage. However, legislation due to come into force in April 2007 makes it clear that venues such as the university, which offer their premises for civil marriages, must also do so for civil partnership ceremonies." Wright stresses that the university would continue to "welcome people irrespective of their faith, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity".
Tony Booth, a professor of education at Canterbury Christ Church and an equality representative for the local lecturers' union, says: "We abhor the decision not to allow civil partnerships to take place on university premises. We call on the vice-chancellor, the pro-chancellor and deputy pro-chancellor to allow premises to be used for civil partnerships as well as marriages with immediate effect, or resign." Booth claims the university's equality and diversity committee has unanimously agreed that a ban is discriminatory and breaks the university's equal opportunities policy.
He says academics believe a "secret decision" was taken between senior management to ban gay ceremonies in December 2005, when the Civil Partnership Act came into force.
In a background note to a meeting of the university's governing body on December 5, Venner, the Bishop of Dover, admits that he, the vice-chancellor and the deputy pro-chancellor discussed the matter. He writes that they "decided not to permit such celebrations to take place on university premises" but that parties following a civil partnership ceremony could take place on campus.
Venner writes: "The government of the UK has been consulting about a new piece of legislation that would forbid individuals and institutions from refusing to celebrate civil partnerships. Religious organisations, including the mainstream Christian denominations, have acknowledged the reasons for government pursuing this line, but have sought, even demanded, exemption.
"To demand that churches, for example, be made available and ministers forced to celebrate such partnerships would be precisely an infringement of their religious freedom ... Government gave assurances that they did not intend to introduce same-sex marriage by another name. Subsequently the situation changed and government spokespersons have undermined their official line."
University leaders acknowledge that it is not part of the Church of England, but is aligned to it. Venner said: "Canterbury Christ Church University contains the words 'Canterbury' and 'Christ Church' and we must recognise their iconic status in the Anglican Communion, in England, in ecumenical relationships, and among other church-related institutions of higher education across the world ... Decisions made by the university can and maybe will reflect upon the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Dover and the vice-chancellor and some of the governors who are members of the church of England."
The national lecturers' union, the University and College Union, has condemned the proposed ban. Its head of equality and employment rights, Roger Kline, says: "Christ Church governors' decision will astound the rest of higher education and will bring the institution into disrepute. There is no justification whatsoever for this reactionary decision. "Canterbury Christ Church's student union president, Robert Thorburn, says students are "shocked" and are signing a petition against the ban.
Canterbury Christ Church is one of 11 higher education institutions closely aligned with the Church of England. Others include the University of Gloucestershire, the University of Chester and Liverpool Hope University. Gloucestershire's director of student services, Paul Drake, says his university has "no plans to turn down any request for a civil partnership ceremony from its staff or students". Liverpool Hope and Chester say they do not have licences to conduct civil ceremonies on their campuses.
Due to the historical alignment of church and state, marriage ceremonies conducted in churches have for centuries had an automatic legal status. However with the advent of civil partnerships, and suggestions of new rights for civil partnerships, the desirability of such a link has been called into question.
The think-tank Ekklesia has urged a clearer separation between marriage and civil partnership ceremonies on the one hand, and the legal contract of marriage or civil partnership on the other. It has been suggested that churches could hold ceremonies for couples who would then decide on the legal status that they wanted their relationship to have.
Solicitor Katharine Landells, who has written a book on civil partnerships, says at the moment Canterbury Christ Church University is within its legal rights not to conduct civil partnerships because it is a private organisation.
But she says that the university will have to choose between conducting all civil marriages - gay and heterosexual - or none at all, if legislation comes into force that forbids institutions licensed for civil marriage ceremonies to refuse to conduct civil partnerships without an opt-out clause for religious organisations.
"The government has come to the decision that it will not allow an opt-out clause for Catholic adoption agencies when it comes to placing children with gay couples, so it seems unlikely that universities aligned with the church will be entitled to an opt-out over civil partnerships," says Landells.
The Church of England has declined to comment on the proposed ban until the university's governing body has made its final decision. The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury also declined to comment.