Consultation Paper on Civil Partnerships in Religious Premises

The government has issued a consultation paper on the proposals to extend the registration of civil partnerships to religious premises.

The paper invites interested parties to feedback on the proposals that the government has on how this move should be implemented. Of particular interest to the Church of England is the rules as to how religious bodies decide whether or not to allow their premises to be used to register civil partnerships.

We propose that:

  • Each individual application to the local authority seeking approval to host civil partnership registrations on a particular religious premises must demonstrate that it is being made with the consent of the faith group concerned (expressed by its specified person or body, see below), or clearly state that no such consent is required.
  • Faith groups that wish to control what happens on all their religious premises will be able to specify the person or body who decides whether or not in principle to permit civil partnerships to be registered on its premises.
  • Faith groups may choose to ask for this person or body to be individually named in advance, but it will not be essential to do so. A faith group will be able to decide who this person or body is when it first comes to consider whether or not to give consent to an application for approval to host civil partnership registrations on one of its premises.
  • The faith group’s specified person or body will be able to give general consent covering all its religious premises or give specific consent to individual applications for particular religious premises to become an approved premises for hosting civil partnership registrations. It is through giving consent that the faith group would ‘opt in’. A faith group that did not wish to opt in would not give consent.
  • A period is allowed for public inspection of, and objections to the local authority to, each application. This will provide an opportunity for any queries about the consent of the appropriate specified person or body having been obtained for particular premises to be made to the faith group concerned.• The local authority would turn down applications which required, but did not have, a faith group’s consent.
  • Faith groups will be able withdraw their consent to their premises being used to host civil partnership registrations. This will result in the local authority revoking the approval of the relevant premises.

The key issue is how far down the food-chain (as it were) one defines a “faith group”? Given that all parochial church councils are now individual charities, might a freeholder get away with arguing that his/her church is a “religious body” of its own?

And yes, religious bodies are allowed to discipline clergy who disobey the rules in this regard (i.e. who go ahead and register their church for civil partnerships when the Bishop says “no”), but what about the grey areas? As I highlighted two months ago, there is a question as to the participation of Church of England clergy as registrars in other religious group’s services in this regard. What if a Church of England priest officiated as a registrar in a Quaker meeting place to register a civil partnership and then conducted a service afterwards, blessing or otherwise? How would that interact with Canon B43?

One good thing which the government has in its proposals is to sustain the clear difference between the registration of the civil partnership itself and any religious ceremony connected to it.

It is currently possible for couples to have a religious service to celebrate or mark the formation of their civil partnership. What is new under these proposals is the scope to hold the registration itself on the same – religious – premises. We expect that the religious service will take place after the civil partnership registration to celebrate its formation. This will ensure that there is a clear break between the civil and religious elements and will allow the civil partnership registrar the time to establish in advance of the proceedings whether there is any reason why the registration cannot proceed. The exact details of the ceremony will be a matter for the couple to discuss and agree with the civil partnership registrar and minister leading the religious celebration. The service following the registration could be led by the minister of religion, include readings from religious texts, the singing of hymns or other religious chants; in short, all those religious elements that must not take place during the registration itself.

I perceive that this will be one area where those with a more progressive mind will want to push the government. Compare this proposed arrangement with the current Church of England marriage service and you’ll see that a religious wedding has the fundamentals of the marriage (vows, exchange of rings, proclamation of marriage) so intertwined with the religious elements that the two are as one.

Finally, the government has reiterated that no religious body or minister will be compelled to undertake registrations.

No faith group will therefore have to consent to allowing civil partnerships to be registered on their religious premises, and no faith group or minister of religion will have to apply to the local authority for their premises to be approved for this purpose. If religious premises have not been approved, by law, a civil partnership registration cannot take place there, so no minister of religion could be sued for not allowing one.

I think we can be pretty clear that unless there is a change in the Marriage Act to permit same-sex couples to marry, this protection of religious freedom is here to stay. However, read the impact assessments at the end of the document and you find an interesting paragraph (emphasis added).

There could be a negative impact on organisations who do not register to conduct civil partnership registrations as they face pressure to do so, possibly damaging relations with their wider community. Conflict could also be caused if the competent authority of a denomination decides not to opt in but an individual wishes to conduct these ceremonies (or vice versa). However, the internal structures and governance of religious bodies would not be for Government to interfere with.

So the Government believes it shouldn’t interfere with the structures and governance of religious bodies. But what about the courts?

What do you think?

Apologies if I don’t reply to your comments immediately. As many of you know, I am currently moving house.

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