The government has agreed to consider measures to give legal recognition to religious same-sex partnership ceremonies, after the proposal received significant support in the House of Lords.
Religious language and the use of religious premises have not been allowed in same-sex civil partnerships since they were introduced in 2005. But yesterday (Monday 25 January), government minister Glenys Thornton said that she was “not unsympathetic” to the idea. She added that the government would explore the matter further.
Her comments, which mark a change to the government’s previous position, were made in response to the Labour peer, Waheed Alli, who moved an amendment to the Equality Bill to allow religious elements in civil partnerships.
Alli agreed to withdraw his amendment following the government’s commitment. But he pointed out that nearly all the speakers in the debate had accepted the idea in principle.
“Can the front-benches listen very carefully to what the House is saying to them?” he asked.
“This is not meant to be an attack on the tenets of religion,” said Alli, who is a gay Muslim, “It is the Quakers, the Liberal Judaism, the Unitarians, who want this provision”.
Thornton said that the government accepted “the fundamental importance of this issue to many same-sex couples” and to “those churches and organisations who do wish to perform same-sex unions”.
However, she argued that any change to the law would need to be more clearly drafted and thought through. A similar stance was taken by the Liberal Democrats.
Alli’s proposal received the support of a number of religious groups, including the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Liberal Judaism and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.
However, it seems unlikely that the government will make much progress on the issue before a general election, which must be held by June at the latest.
It is not clear what position the Conservatives would take on the issue if elected to government.
David Hunt, a Tory spokesperson in the Lords, said “I agree we’ve come a long way [on gay people’s rights], but we have to pause for a moment”. However, he acknowledged that there were many same-sex couples who wished to celebrate their commitment to each other in the context of their faith.
Gillian Ashmore, speaking on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting of Friends, said that Quakers were “encouraged by the government’s willingness to listen, consult and consider”.
She added, “We are looking forward to entering this dialogue with both government and other faith bodies, with a view to finding a solution together”.