The House of Lords has thrown out a 'wrecking amendment' designed to prevent faith groups from hosting same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on their premises. The news means that such ceremonies are likely to take place in religious buildings from next year.
The Lords rejected a motion proposed by Tory peer Detta O'Cathain, who argued that the new provision could lead to churches being sued if they refused to host civil partnerships. Her critics argue that the provision is clearly voluntary. As the balance of opinion became clear, O'Cathain backed down and withdrew her motion.
The news was welcomed by the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and those faith groups that plan to host civil partnerships on their premises. They include Unitarians, Quakers and Liberal Jews.
Religious buildings have been banned from hosting civil partnership ceremonies since they were introduced in 2005. The law was changed by the Equality Act 2010, but the government did not bring the new provision into effect until 5 December.
However, the new law did not clear its last hurdle until yesterday (15 December), when O'Cathain attempted to annul the provision. She said she was promoting the “religious freedom” of churches opposed to same-sex relationships.
This provoked a strong reaction from Labour peer Waheed Alli, a gay Muslim. He said that the new law is itself promoting religious freedom. 'It's about allowing churches the freedom to decide whether they want to host civil partnerships or not,' he said, 'It's about allowing the Quakers, or the Liberal Jews or Unitarians, the freedom to make their own decisions'.
Alli argued that the motion was based on a “spurious argument” fuelled by prejudice and fear.
He quoted the relevant clause in the Equality Act, which states, “For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so”.
Several peers contributing to the debate quoted a recent statement from the Church of England, whose lawyers advised them that they faced no prospect of successful legal action over their decision not to host civil partnerships.
Prior to the vote, a joint statement was issued by Quakers in Britain, Liberal Judaism and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. While restating their wish to host civil partnerships, they added, “We recognise fully the rights of those who do not wish to do so and we are clear that the legislation protects the freedom to say no as well as yes”.
The Church of England, Roman Catholic Church and Methodist Church have said they will not host civil partnerships on their premises.
The United Reformed Church is due to make a decision at its General Assembly in July. A number of Baptist ministers have called on the Baptist Union of Great Britain to allow them to make up their own minds on the matter. Quakers and Unitarians are committing to going further and campaigning for legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
“This is an important step on the way to marriage equality,” said Symon Hill, associate director of Ekklesia, “But marriage law in the UK remains unfair”.
He added, “Different people have different rights, depending on religion and sexuality. It is time for a thorough overhaul of marriage law to respond to the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society.”
Ekklesia wants to see the legal and religious elements of marriage made more distinct. This would allow people to celebrate their commitment in a personal, communal and – if important to them – religious ceremony, with legal registration being a separate process.
The new applies only to England and Wales. The Scottish government recently completed its own consultation on same-sex marriage.