In a dramatic development, the House of Lords has voted to allow the use of religious premises and religious language in same-sex partnerships.
Sitting yesterday evening (2 March), peers voted in favour of the proposal by 95 votes to 21, despite opposition from the government and several Church of England bishops.
The current law on same-sex civil partnerships prohibits religious elements. Campaigners point out that this means that whereas a mixed-sex couple can choose between a civil or religious wedding, a same-sex couple are denied this choice.
The proposal, which takes the form of an amendment to the Equality Bill, was put forward by Waheed Alli, who is a gay Muslim and a Labour peer. The government have agreed to work with Alli to redraft the amendment, ensuring that the principle is incorporated into the Bill.
The Bishop of Bradford, David James, spoke and voted against the amendment, saying that it confused civil partnership with marriage. He was the only bishop to participate in the debate on this occasion, although the Bishops of Chichester and Winchester had spoken against the proposal on a prveious occasion.
The former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, who is now a life peer, spoke and voted in favour of the the amendment.
The result provoked a jubilant reaction from campaigners and members of religious groups wishing to celebrate same-sex partnerships.
“I’m delighted,” said Hannah Booth, 24, a Quaker who is in a same-sex partnership, “I think this could represent a significant progression for Britain”.
She told Ekklesia, “I’m disappointed that the main opposition seems to have come from a vocal minority within the established Church. I hope that Christians in the UK, regardless of their stance on sexuality, will see this as a triumph for freedom of religious expression”.
Three religious communities – the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Liberal Judaism and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches – have said that they wish to hold legally recognised same-sex partnerships.
The move has also been supported by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Green Party and the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Last week, several senior Church of England clerics, including the Bishop of Salisbury, David Stancliffe, wrote to the Times to express their support for the change.
“Today, we are one step closer to being married in a very meaningful way for us,” said Chris Campbell, an elder at Maidenhead United Reformed Church who is in a same-sex relationship with a Roman Catholic man, “It's something of which all Christians should be proud”.
A few members of the House of Lords, notably the Conservatives David Waddington and Norman Tebbit, spoke passionately against the amendment.
They predicted that it could lead to churches being compelled to carry out same-sex partnership ceremonies against their will. But their assertion was disputed by Waheed Alli, who pointed out that the amendment will give faith groups the freedom to choose whether to celebrate partnerships.
Many campaigners for marriage equality are likely to call for change to go much further. There have been repeated calls for the use of the word “marriage” to be allowed in both same-sex and mixed-sex commitments.
The Christian thinktank Ekklesia welcomed the vote, but suggested that the growing diversity of arrangements highlights the need for wide-ranging reform of marriage law.
“Tonight’s vote is good news for many devout people who wish to celebrate their love in the context of their faith,” said Ekklesia’s co-director, Symon Hill, “It is important for the religious liberty of the faith communities concerned”.
He added, “An overhaul of marriage law is urgently required to respond to the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society. It is time for a legal change that allows people to enter into marriages or partnerships as a public, communal, and if important to them, a religious commitment, with legal registration being a separate process.
"Not only is this a pragmatic necessity, but it is the best way forward in finding common ground between religious people who take differing positions on issues of sexuality and marriage”.