Lord Alli’s Amendment Passes

Thinking Anglicans have a number of links, the best of which are the reports from the Times,

The House of Lords voted to lift the ban on civil partnership ceremonies in churches and other religious premises last night.

Peers voted by 95 to 21 – a majority of 74 – to lift the ban which previously prevented gays and lesbians from getting “married” in such places.

In a letter to The Times ten days ago, senior bishops including the Bishop of Salisbury and the Dean of Southwark expressed their support for the amendment, which was tabled by gay Labour peer Lord Alli.

The move will result in an amendment to the Equalities Bill which would allow, though not compel, religious organisations to host civil partnerships. Religious language would also be permitted within the ceremonies.

It is predicted that as a result there would be effectively no difference between marriage and civil partnership within the church. Critics say that the change will force clerics to take a more liberal approach to same-sex relationships.

The law would allow ceremonies only among denominations who endorse gay marriage. The Quakers have already campaigned for the change in legislation, and Unitarians and liberal Jews have also already shown their support for the amendment.

and from the Telegraph.

Supporting the move Baroness Butler-Sloss, the retired high court judge who sits as a cross-bench peer, said: “I believe that same sex couples should be able to have religious services in religious establishments where that particular religious establishment permits them do to so.”

She added that the Quakers and some liberal Jewish synagogues had expressed an interest in conducting services for homosexual couples.

A Government spokesman said that a decision had yet to be taken over whether MPs would also be allowed to vote with their conscience when the Bill comes back before the Commons in the next few weeks.

A number of observations.

  1. The amendment passed at the Report stage in the House of Lords, which means it still has to return to the Commons for another reading. At that point the Government may oppose it since they were opposed to it in the Lords, and therefore it may yet not be in the final Bill.
  2. Of far more concern for the Church of England and other religious denominations is that the amendment is vaguely worded and ambiguous in intent and meaning. The amendment permits religious premises to be used for the registration of Civil Partnerships, but there is no understanding in the current wording as to who has the authority within a denomination to make such a decision for the use of religious premises. Take for example the Church of England, where many incumbents have freehold over their church. What happens if the Diocese bans the use of churches for registering Civil Partnerships? If an incumbent goes ahead and registers his church, can the Bishop take action against him? Would such action be illegal since the amendment gives the incumbent has the right to use his building for this purpose? This situation makes a nonsense of the idea that “nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so“.
  3. There is real ambiguity as to how the registration of the Civil Partnership would take place within a religious service. As the Bishop of Bradford said in the debate:

    The fundamental difficulty that many churches and faiths will have with this argument is that we, like the Government and the courts, have been quite clear ever since civil partnerships were introduced, that they are not the same as marriages. It is true that they confer nearly all the same legal rights. However, it was because civil partnerships remedied long-standing injustices for gay and lesbian people, who had for far too long been the victims of discrimination and prejudice, that many people in the Church of England were able to welcome their introduction as worth while-a worthwhile addition to the civil law, even though, as is common knowledge, we continue to have very lively debates on issues of human sexuality.

    At the moment, however, civil partnerships are not in substance or in form same-sex marriages. There are some countries that have already introduced the possibility of marriage between people of the same sex, and no doubt some of those sympathetic to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, favour that direction of travel. I do not, and neither do the majority of churches and faiths in this country. But if people want to argue for that, they are entitled to do so, and it is a debate that we can have. That debate ought to take place in the synods, the convocations, the councils and so on, and the churches as well. The point is simply that we should not muddle up a debate about civil partnerships with a debate on same-sex marriage.

    What is proposed here means that it would still be unlawful for a religious service to take place while a civil partnership registrar was officiating at the signing of a civil partnership document. Yet the signing of the document could occur in a place of worship if that place of worship had successfully applied for approval. That seems rather odd. Does it mean that the civil partnership registrar would have to turn up at the place of worship, conduct the legal part of the business, and then withdraw so that the religious ceremony could take place? Or does it mean that the local minister of religion would be appointed as a civil registrar and would be allowed to preside at the civil partnership formalities so long as he or she did not lapse into any “amens” or anything religious in their own place of worship until that part of the event was over?

    It is clear that the Government recognises these issues and understands that it cannot let the amendment pass without addressing them. Baroness Royal said the following.

    This is a complex issue, which we need to consider carefully if we are to be sure that any changes will achieve what they are designed to do and will be workable in practice. Should my noble friend be successful in making his amendment, there would need to be wide discussion and careful consideration of what further measures would need to be put in place and what further legislation would be needed. That is why the Government believe that the most appropriate way forward is to consider the issue further and to solve these problems before any legislative change is made.

    The amendment raises issues of fundamental religious conscience. This is not a question about civil rights for lesbians and gay men. Same-sex couples already have the right to legal recognition of their relationship, with the rights and responsibilities which go along with that, thanks to the groundbreaking Civil Partnership Act, which I am proud to say this Government placed on the statute book in 2004. Our record on rights for LGB people is second to none, but this amendment would give faith organisations the freedom to host civil partnerships on their premises, raising fundamental issues for religious organisations, and it is therefore right that they are considered as matters of individual conscience. As my noble friend clearly stated, this is a matter of religious freedom. That is why we want to have a full and open discussion with all those concerned. We can then consider the issues carefully and arrive at the right way forward for this country, which deals with the wide range of matters which will be affected by the change.

The whole debate can be read here.

To summarise, the amendment leaves a number of questions unanswered and the Government has recognised these. They have also stated very clearly the fact that this is in their view, not in any sense a human rights or justice issue. The Bill still has to have a third reading in both houses and the amendment may very well fail at that point, or die with the Bill in its entirety if legislation is dumped in advance of the General Election.

One thing is clear though – this is legalised gay marriage in church by the back door and those of us who are Biblically conservative need to be very aware of what is going on. The Bill in its current form is too ambiguous and would arguably permit Church of England clergy to let Civil Partnerships be registered in churches without the permission of their Bishops.

Update – Colin Coward of Changing Attitude does a good job of being brutally honest about the amendment.

Is Lord Alli’s amendment a Trojan horse as some claim? I very much hope so. There are many priests and parishes where civil partnerships are already celebrated and blessed in church and bishops who either turn a blind eye towards what is happening or positively encourage priests to contract a civil partnership. Conservatives would be surprised to know which bishops and how many there are.

Conservatives are now attempting to close the stable door well after the same-sex mare and stallion couples have bolted. Our bishops are in disarray, but not enough disarray as yet. Too many of them are still in the closet or in denial about their attitude towards gay relationships, or half in/half out of the stable.

Posted in Church of England, Civil Partnerships, Legal Stuff, Secular / Christian Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
  • The principle behind the amendment should be fairly non-contentious: if the Quakers (say) want to host civil partnerships then why should the law stop them?

    But I agree the actual amendment itself is very poorly worded, particularly the clause saying "nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so". Is "religious organisation" defined? Is there a difference between "hosting" a CP and "registering" a CP on one's premises?

    Also, how does this Act interact with laws prohibiting discrimination in service provision? If religious premises /can/ register CPs, will this mean they /have/ to in order to avoid anti-discrimination claims?

    At least it sounds like the government acknowledges the complexities involved – my guess is this will go into the "too hard" pile given the proximity to the election.
    My recent post Relating to Jesus

  • SCS

    As with all these things, you give an inch and they take a mile. This is the slippery slope ans must be resisted. This is not about intolerance or equality, but about the denial of conscience of faith, the denial to uphold the biblical teaching, i.e. the Prophets', Jesus' and the Apostles' teaching on sexual relationships. If a church, and I speak in Anglican terms here, whether its incumbent, PCC or congregation do not want civil partnership ceremonies in their church, every support, even civil legal, to uphold that choice must be provided.

    True equality comes about through relationship and respect. As we have seen many times before, enforced equality disenfranchises many more than it provides for. Take the catholic adoption agencies who were doing such fantastic work in finding children new families, they closed rather than abandoning their long-standing and deeply held beliefs – for what gain? What next, forcing premiership football clubs to sign up village women cricket players? Ridiculous – of course. Same with churches being forced to hold religious 'civil' partnerships (a contradiction in terms!!), which is what organisations like Stonewall will continue to campaign and pressurise for, regardless of the massively larger number of faith-holding people to whom this is quite unacceptable.

    • John H

      I agree that churches should not be forced to conduct civil partnership ceremonies. But if the principle at stake is the freedom for religions to practise their beliefs, I don't see how you uphold the freedom of one set of religious beliefs by denying it to another. If you want freedom, argue for it, instead of arguing for those illiberal views that happen to suit your own position.

  • Winston

    Peter, where were the bishops? Most of them were not there, not even Winchester!