Church seeks assurance of religious freedom on civil partnerships issue

The Church of England told the Government yesterday that it should have “unfettered freedom” to decide whether to permit civil partnerships on church premises.

In its submission on the last day of a Government consultation on the issue, the Church said its objective was to ensure that amendments to existing legislation continue to provide “unfettered freedom for each religious tradition to resolve these matters in accordance with its own convictions and its own internal procedures of governance”.

The consultation follows Parliament’s announcement last year that it planned to lift the prohibition on the registration of civil partnerships in places of worship.

The decision was welcomed by some faith groups, including the Quakers, but strongly opposed by some Christians who expressed fears that churches would be forced to conduct the ceremonies against their will.

William Fittall, Secretary General of the General Synod and Archbishops’ Council, who drafted the Church’s submission, said: “For most Christian denominations as well as other faith groups the issues involved are set to remain sensitive and, to varying degrees, contested.”

“We judge that the approach taken in the consultation paper should be capable of delivering the opt-in approach that we support, given the decision Parliament has already taken.”

Whilst the amendment to legislation states that “religious organisations” will not be obliged to conduct civil partnership ceremonies on their premises, Mr Fittall said there needed to be further clarification on which faith groups qualify as religious organisations and the buildings that constitute religious premises.

He added: “There needs to be an ‘opting in’ mechanism of the kind that the Government has proposed.

“In the case of the Church of England that would mean that its churches would not be able to become approved premises for the registration of civil partnerships until and unless the General Synod had first decided as a matter of policy that that should be possible."

Speaking in the House of Lords, the Bishop of Bradford the Rt Rev David James warned that the amendment could “muddle” the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage.

Lord Waddington expressed a similar concern and spoke of the risk to churches that do not wish to conduct civil partnership ceremonies on their premises.

“For my part, I cannot support an amendment that blurs the distinction between civil partnership and marriage, particularly when we were all assured when the Civil Partnership Act was going through Parliament that the distinction was crucial and would be maintained, not least by keeping civil partnerships within the secular field,” he said.

“I am not at all impressed by the argument that all we are talking about is allowing bodies to conduct civil partnerships within their religious premises, with the new clause making plain that no obligation is placed on religious organisations to register civil partnerships.

“If this amendment were carried, it would only be a matter of time before it was argued that it was discriminatory for a church incumbent to refuse to allow a civil partnership ceremony to take place when the law allowed it.”

Synod member the Rev Canon Jonathan Ford told Premier Christian Radio that he feared an exodus from the Church of England if the governing body were to vote to allow the ceremonies.