Faith groups to be given freedom to host same-sex weddings

By staff writers
7 Dec 2012

Gay and bisexual Christians are amongst those celebrating the news that the government will offer faith groups the right to host same-sex weddings that will be recognised in law.

Faith groups will be allowed to choose whether to take up the offer. They will not be forced to host a marriage ceremony that they do not believe in. The government has promised that the new law, which will apply in England and Wales, will be in force by 2015. The Scottish government is planning marriage equality by 2014.

The news marks a victory for religious gay and bisexual people, who had criticised the government's original plan of offering only civil ceremonies to same-sex couples.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, today backed down, saying that faith groups will be allowed to choose for themselves. He rebutted claims that churches will be forced to host same-sex marriages against their will, which no organisation is calling for.

"This is wonderful news," said Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. "It feels like Christmas has come early."

Many Tories oppose the policy and Conservative MPs will be given a free vote on the issue. The House of Commons will almost certainly approve the new law, due to the support of opposition and Liberal Democrat MPs.

Amongst the groups welcoming today's announcement were the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Christian thinktank Ekklesia.

Ferguson explained, "The possibility that I will finally be able to marry my partner in church, before God, and surrounded by my congregation, family and friends fills me with joy. Being an ordained minister, I am also excited at the prospect of being able to perform marriage ceremonies for my congregation."

Quakers are already hosting same-sex marriages, but they have no legal recognition. The largest faith group in the UK hat has so far endorsed same-sex marriage is the Movement for Reform Judaism. Others include the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the Metropolitan Community Church and Liberal Judaism.

Baptists and the United Reformed Church are divided on the issue, while the move is also backed individual Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Muslims.

However, the leaders of the Church of England, Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church are campaigning against legal recognition for same-sex marriage. The Methodist Church say they will not host same-sex marriages themselves but they are not campaigning against the change in the law.

"David Cameron’s support for the right of religious organisations to conduct same-sex marriages is a welcome affirmation of religious freedom and gay equality," said Peter Tatchell, co-ordinator of the Equal Love campaign.

In contrast, the socially conservative lobby group Christian Concern reacted with anger. They believe that there should be no legal recognition for same-sex marriage, whether in a civil or religious ceremony. They also claim that churches will be forced to host same-sex weddings against their will.

“If this moves ahead, the courts’ interpretation of equality legislation will not provide any effective protection from litigation for churches who do not wish to perform such ceremonies," said Christian Concern's Andrea Williams.

But Symon Hill, associate director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, said the evidence did not support this claim.

Hill explained, "In years of working and talking about this issue, I have never come across anyone who wants to force churches to host marriages that they don't believe in. Churches are not obliged to marry everyone - for example, Catholic churches can legally refuse to marry divorced people, and Anglican churches in England can require parties to have a parish connection. Several European countries have legalised same-sex marriages without the courts forcing churches to host them."

He added" "Religious supporters of same-sex marriages respect the right of faith groups with other views to decline to host them. Many will regard it as unfortunate that some opponents of same-sex marriage do not feel able to show the same respect for the religious liberty of those with whom they disagree."

Some have called for the government to go further and tackle other inequalities in marriage law. Peter Tatchell and the Equal Love campaign have reiterated their call for mixed-sex couples to be offered the choice of a civil partnership.

Ekklesia called for thorough overhaul of marriage law to reflect the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society. They suggested that anyone should be able to engage in a personal, social and - if important to them - religious ceremony, with legal registration being a separate process.

[Ekk/1]

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