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.
- Each individual application to the local authority seeking approval to host civilÂ partnership registrations on a particular religious premises must demonstrateÂ that it is being made with the consent of the faith group concerned (expressedÂ by its specified person or body, see below), or clearly state that no such consentÂ is required.
- Faith groups that wish to control what happens on all their religious premisesÂ will be able to specify the person or body who decides whether or not inÂ principle to permit civil partnerships to be registered on its premises.
- Faith groups may choose to ask for this person or body to be individuallyÂ named in advance, but it will not be essential to do so. A faith group will beÂ able to decide who this person or body is when it first comes to considerÂ whether or not to give consent to an application for approval to host civilÂ partnership registrations on one of its premises.
- The faith groupâ€™s specified person or body will be able to give generalÂ consent covering all its religious premises or give specific consent to individualÂ applications for particular religious premises to become an approved premisesÂ for hosting civil partnership registrations. It is through giving consent that theÂ faith group would â€˜opt inâ€™. A faith group that did not wish to opt in would notÂ give consent.
- A period is allowed for public inspection of, and objections to the local authorityÂ to, each application. This will provide an opportunity for any queries about theÂ consent of the appropriate specified person or body having been obtained forÂ particular premises to be made to the faith group concerned.â€¢ The local authority would turn down applications which required, but did notÂ have, a faith groupâ€™s consent.
- Faith groups will be able withdraw their consent to their premises being used toÂ host civil partnership registrations. This will result in the local authority revokingÂ 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 celebrateÂ or mark the formation of their civil partnership. What is new under theseÂ proposals is the scope to hold the registration itself on the same â€“ religiousÂ â€“ premises. We expect that the religious service will take place after theÂ civil partnership registration to celebrate its formation. This will ensureÂ that there is a clear break between the civil and religious elements andÂ will allow the civil partnership registrar the time to establish in advance ofÂ the proceedings whether there is any reason why the registration cannotÂ proceed. The exact details of the ceremony will be a matter for the coupleÂ to discuss and agree with the civil partnership registrar and minister leadingÂ the religious celebration. The service following the registration could be ledÂ by the minister of religion, include readings from religious texts, the singingÂ of hymns or other religious chants; in short, all those religious elements thatÂ 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 partnershipsÂ to be registered on their religious premises, and no faith group or ministerÂ of religion will have to apply to the local authority for their premises to beÂ approved for this purpose. If religious premises have not been approved, byÂ law, a civil partnership registration cannot take place there, so no ministerÂ 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 impactÂ assessmentsÂ 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 toÂ conduct civil partnership registrations as they face pressure to do so, possiblyÂ damaging relations with their wider community. Conflict could also be caused ifÂ the competent authority of a denomination decides not to opt in but an individualÂ wishes to conduct these ceremonies (or vice versa). However, the internalÂ structures and governance of religious bodies would not be for GovernmentÂ to interfere with.
So the Government believes it shouldn’tÂ interfereÂ 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.