Senior Church of England bishops in the House of Lords say that they will now support an amendment to the Equality Bill to lift the ban on civil partnership ceremonies taking place on religious premises.
This follows the withdrawal of an amendment to the Equality Bill on the issue following opposition from two key bishops. The Archbishop of York and other bishops also helped to weaken the Bill in other respects when it last came to the Lords, in order to preserve their ability to discriminate in employing auxiliary staff. The Bill returns to parliament for consideration in March 2010.
An Equality Bill amendment and a change to the the Equality Bill would have the effect of removing the legislative prohibition on blessings of lesbian and gay couples. It would open the door to the registration of civil partnerships in churches, synagogues, mosques and all other religious premises - as a matter of choice rather than of compulsion.
The move was announced in a letter to The Times from a group of leading Church of England figures. They include the serving Bishop of Salisbury, the Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, and four retired bishops. They say it should now be up to individual denominations whether to offer civil partnership ceremonies.
A Lords amendment to the Equality Bill is expected to be tabled in the next few days by Lord Alli, the Labour peer, who is openly gay. The Times reports that it is likely to be backed by the Conservatives and, significantly, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Timothy Stevens, who convenes the 26 bishops in the House of Lords - and who was recently involved in a London debate on unelected bishops in parliament.
There is also a question about what happens to the Civil Partnership Act.
He defended the current arrangement, along with Lady Butler-Sloss. Opposing, were the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, an active humanist, and Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia.
Bishop Stevens faced strong arguments that, as with the Equality Bill to date, the bishops have often used their privileged and unaccountable positions in the UK's legislature to defend the vested interests of the Established Church, as well as speaking out on other social issues.
The latest move will be seen as a response to that kind of criticism, though it does not address the underlying constitutional question.
The Bishops of Winchester and Chichester opposed Lord Alli's amendment last time it was presented, dismissing the concerns of other religious bodies in what some critics regarded as a "patronising" and "high-handed" way.
The change to permit civil partnerships on religious premises is backed and supported by Quakers, Liberal Judaism and the Unitarians, among others.
Oxford politics professor, Iain McLean FBA, author of What's Wrong with the British Constitution? wrote a pointed but courteous open letter to the Bishop of Winchester on the subject after the Lords vote. (See http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/11194) McLean is a Quaker with a Church of Scotland background
Referring to Lord Alli's amendment, and the real possibility that it may now pass into law, Stonewall, the gay rights group, said: “We know this is a matter of importance to only a small number of people, but it is important nonetheless. And the amendment makes clear that the celebration of civil partnerships is permissible, not mandatory.”
Hardline religious activists opposed to any extension of rights for LGBT people are already lobbying vocally against the change.