A range of campaigning groups and faith-based organisations have expressed their support for a decision to allow the use of religious premises and religious language in same-sex partnership ceremonies.
The House of Lords voted late on Tuesday night (2 March) to change the law, which currently prohibits religious elements in civil partnerships.
The government, who initially resisted the amendment, agreed to work with its proposer, Waheed Alli, to ensure that the principle is incorporated into the Equality Bill.
The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) said that they were “joining with others in celebrating this victory”. LGCM’s chief executive, Rev Sharon Ferguson, added that, “Christians of all convictions on this issue ought to see this as a step toward greater, not lesser freedom of religious expression”.
The Christian thinktank Ekklesia welcomed the news shortly after the result of the vote was announced.
Ekklesia added that it highlighted the need for a more thoroughgoing overhaul of marriage law. This would give greater religious freedom by separating the legal and non-legal aspects of marriages and partnerships.
The news triggered celebration by those faith communities that wish to carry out same-sex partnerships, including Liberal Judaism, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches and the Metropolitan Community Churches.
“The amendment deserved to succeed on the grounds of both equality and religious liberty,” said Gillian Ashmore on behalf of British Quakers, “Same-sex couples who wish to give legal effect to their committed relationships will now be able to do so in a worshipful setting”.
However, not all Christians are convinced. Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON) condemned the decision, saying that it removed “one of the final distinctions between marriage and civil partnerships”.
CCFON’s director Andrea Williams called on the government to resist the amendment “for the good of our democracy as well as for the protection of marriage”. She argued that the law could lead to churches being forced to conduct ceremonies that they do not believe in.
But Sharon Ferguson insisted, “The claim by some that this will force religious organisations to perform same-sex ceremonies is false”.
She explained that, “The law does not force ministers and other religious leaders to marry opposite-sex couples now, and won't force them to conduct civil partnerships for same-sex couples.”
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay, lesbian and bisexual charity Stonewall, said that his organisation will “work closely with ministers to ensure that we secure implementation of this further step towards equality".
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said, “Allowing faith organisations to make their own decisions on whether to conduct same-sex civil partnerships is the democratic and decent thing to do”.
Many of the groups which welcomed the decision are likely to continue to push for further reform, particularly for the right of same-sex couples to have their legal relationship described as “marriage” rather than “partnership”.
“Our next goal is to secure marriage equality,” said Tatchell. He quoted a poll published in the Times last year, which showed 61 per cent of the public supporting legally recognised civil marriages for same-sex couples.