A number of faith groups have joined with equality campaigners in welcoming a new law that comes into effect today (5 December). It will allow legally recognised same-sex civil partnerships to be registered on religious premises in England and Wales.
Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews have already said that they plan to take advantage of the provision in their own buildings. The move has also been welcomed by other Christian groups, including the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and the thinktank Ekklesia.
The provision formed part of the Equality Act, passed by Parliament in April 2010. But the coalition government has disappointed campaigners by taking over a year and a half to implement it.
Civil partnerships for same-sex couples were introduced in 2005, but the law has until now specifically ruled out any religious elements.
Paul Parker of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) said that his denomination “encouraged and welcomed” the new provision. British Quakers are committed to campaign for full marriage equality and see this as a step on the way.
The Church of England, Roman Catholic Church and Methodist Church have said that they will not take advantage of the new law. The United Reformed Church is due to debate the issue at its General Assembly next year. The Baptist Union of Great Britain is facing calls from a number of Baptists for individual congregations to be allowed to make up their own mind on the matter.
Further controversy was ignited over the weekend, after the Church of England warned its individual priests and churches not to host civil partnerships, even if they believe in them.
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, co-ordinator of the Equal Love campaign, said that the “top brass” in the Church of England is out of touch with grassroots Anglicans, many of whom would be happy to host civil partnerships.
“I urge individual priests and their congregations to defy this harsh, intolerant ruling,” he added.
There is fear that the new provision could be scrapped before it has even had time to take effect. Detta O’Cathain, a Tory peer, is proposing a motion in the House of Lords next week arguing that the provisions are not clear. If the Lords pass her proposal, the provision could be annulled.
O’Cathain argues that the new law could lead to churches facing litigation if they refuse to host civil partnerships. Similar claims have been made by the socially conservative lobby group Christian Concern.
Critics of O’Cathain’s move point out that the voluntary nature of the provision is made very clear in the Equality Act. They add that no group that campaigned for the measure expressed a desire to force faith groups to carry out ceremonies they do not believe in.
“No-one is suggesting that churches should be forced to conduct civil partnerships against their wishes,” said Tatchell.
The motion in the Lords was described as a “cynical effort to derail the measure on rather spurious grounds" by Derek McAuley of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.
He added, "Unitarian congregations must not be prevented at this late stage in seeking to take forward our own sincerely held views and to offer same-sex couples the opportunity to register their civil partnership".
The Church of England at a national level have now indicated that they do not think the provision as currently worded will threaten their right to refuse to host same-sex partnerships. The Methodist Church, while not taking advantage of the provision, have always emphasised that they recognise its voluntary nature. O'Cathain's motion is likely to be undermined by their statements.
The change in the law was described as “an important step on the way to marriage equality” by Symon Hill, associate director of Ekklesia. He said, “Religious same-sex couples will be able to celebrate their love and commitment in the context of their faith”.
He argued that if the Lords scuppered the new provision, they would damage religious liberty as well as the rights of same-sex couples.
“The new law makes clear that no faith group will be obliged to carry out civil partnerships against their wishes,” said Hill, “It is sad that many of those who talk loudest about the freedom and rights of Christian churches are willing to deny that freedom to those churches that want to celebrate same-sex partnerships”.
Christian Concern have failed to reply to an open letter from Hill, asking them to produce evidence for their claim that churches will "almost certainly" face litigation for refusing to host civil partnerships. He asked them to name any campaigner or organisation that was considering such a move.
The provision will apply only in England and Wales. The Scottish government is consulting on introducing full marriage equality, while the UK government has promised same-sex civil marriage in England and Wales by 2015.
“Marriage law in the UK remains unfair,” said Symon Hill, “Different couples 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.