The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has condemned the UK Government’s plan explicitly to ban the Church in Wales from performing same-sex marriages.
While the Anglican Church in Wales (Yr Eglwys yng Nghymru) holds to the view that marriage is for one man and one woman only, with those who support its extension to gay people in a minority, the denomination's leader has expressed astonishment that the government is putting two churches - his own and the established Church of England - outside the legal provisions to be promulgated by the Westminster parliament.
The government's overall intention is to make civil marriage equal for gay and heterosexual couples, and to permit religious ceremonies for same-sex partners for those who want to provide them, with full guarantees that those who do not will not be forced.
But at the last minute, without consultation, the Church of England and the Church in Wales have been told that they will be barred by law from performing same-sex ceremonies altogether.
The move immediately raises questions of legality under European human rights law and under the Human Rights Act, say equality campaigners, because it discriminates exclusively against members of two particular religious groups.
The Anglican primate in Wales said yesterday (11 December 2012) that the move, apparently intended to reassure opponents of same-sex marriage, was a “step too far”.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller announced the ban when promising that no church will ever be forced to conduct a same-sex wedding and outlining what she called a “quadruple legal lock” to protect religious organisations from lawsuits when same-sex marriages are legalised.
Dr Morgan said: "The Government is specifically excluding the Church in Wales and the Church of England from the legislation so that it will be illegal for them to have gay marriage. I think that is a step too far."
He continued: "It does not leave it to the governing bodies of the two churches to decide whether they want to opt in or out as other churches are allowed to do. It curtails our freedom of choice and seems to close the door on even the possibility of doing so in the future without a change in law. It also makes these churches seem exclusive and I think that is unfortunate."
The Church in Wales may have partly created the situation for itself by a comment in its submission to the government which declared: "The Church in Wales is in an almost identical position to the Church of England with regard to the solemnisation of marriages. The Church in Wales’ concerns about the legal implications are therefore the same as those of the Church of England. We have taken note of these, and would seek assurances that the Government would specifically include the Church in Wales in any provisions for the Church of England under the proposed legislation."
However, the 'legal implications' concern would appear to have been covered, as for the Church of England, in the clear terms that the government proposes to underwrite in the legislation, and although the Church in Wales undertakes obligations to marry most couples, lawyers do not believe this requires a ban.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "The government seems to have got itself in a real mess here. Just when it seemed to have articulated a clear and fair position -- that religious groups could offer weddings to same-sex couples but would be protected from anyone forcing them into providing them -- it has introduced a ban on just two of many churches, opening itself to the very legal confusion and challenge everyone wants to avoid."
He added: "The ban on performing same-sex ceremonies in the Church of England, while an unacceptable breach of religious freedom, at least makes sense in terms of it being an established church -- though arguably it would make far more sense to disestablish it than to get caught up in legal provisions to hamper or compel English Anglicans.
"However, singling out the Church in Wales seems additionally curious, because it is not a state church and was actually finally disestablished in 1920, under the Welsh Church Act 1914. One wonders whether the Westminster government, which is often very English- and London-centric in its purview, has forgotten this distinction.
"Perhaps, equally oddly, it decided to create a level playing field for Anglicans in England and Wales following comments in the Church in Wales' submission about possible legal implications of recognition of same-sex marriages, while effectively discriminating against them in relation to all other denominations and religions. We will have to wait and see, but it is hard to understand how these provisions can be sustained, legally or morally," concluded the Ekklesia co-director.
* 'Should equal marriage be rejected or celebrated by Christians?', by Savitri Hensman - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17245