Clergy could be sued if they refuse to carry out ‘gay marriages’, traditionalists fearMar 9th, 2010 | By admin | Category: Signs of the Times (click on article name)
Clergy could be sued if they refuse to carry out ‘gay marriages’, traditionalists fear
Clergy could be sued if they refuse to carry out “gay marriages” in church, leading figures have warned.
By Martin Beckford and Heidi Blake
Published: 10:00PM GMT 03 Mar 2010
Their concerns have been raised following a landmark vote by peers that will allow the ceremonies for same-sex couples to be held in places of worship for the first time.
It is also feared that the changes would blur the line further between marriage – which churches say must be between a man and a woman – and civil partnerships.
It comes after a Government drive to outlaw bias against minority groups such as homosexuals in the Equality Bill.
Until now civil partnerships, which entitle same-sex couples to the same legal rights of married spouses, have been restricted to register offices and secular venues such as hotels and stately homes.
But under an amendment to the Equality Bill tabled in the House of Lords by Lord Alli, a homosexual Labour peer, the ban on the events taking place on religious premises will be lifted.
The amendment states that national faith groups will not be forced to carry out civil partnerships.
But it is feared that same-sex couples would be able to use the protection from discrimination guaranteed – under the Equality Bill or the Human Rights Act – to take legal action against individual clergy in their parish if they refuse to “marry” them in a local church.
The Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester, said: “I believe that it will open, not the Church of England, but individual clergy, to charges of discrimination if they solemnise marriages as they all do, but refuse to host civil partnership signings in their churches. Unless the Government does something explicit about this, I believe that is the next step.”
The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Rev David James, warned during the debate of the “unintended consequences” of the move.
He said that although it was being presented to “simply be an available option” to some religious groups, he was “not so confident” that it would remain that way.
Lord Waddington, a former Home Secretary, said: “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.”
In an argument backed by Lord Tebbit, he said that a clergyman “prepared to register marriages but not to register civil partnerships would be accused of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of services and pressure would be brought to bear on him to pocket his principles and do what he believed to be wrong”.
Lord Waddington said “without doubt there would be the risk of costly litigation” under the Equality Bill or the Human Rights Act.
Last night Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs for the Evangelical Alliance, which represents thousands of churches across Britain, said: “We understand the Lords’ desire to allow a few liberal religious groups to have freedom to follow their consciences. But neither must other religious groups be forced to betray their consciences by facing lawsuits if they fail to allow a civil ceremony.”
Under the Civil Partnership Act 2004, homosexual couples are allowed to hold civil partnership ceremonies in register offices and approved venues such as stately homes and hotels, but they were banned from doing so in churches while the events were not allowed to be religious in character.
In the amendment to Harriet Harman’s controversial Equality Bill tabled by Lord Alli late on Monday night, the ban on religious premises was lifted. It was passed on a free vote by 95 to 21, with only two of the bishops – the Lords Spiritual – taking part.
The amendment stated: “For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so.”
But the fear is that the protection from discrimination in the ‘provision of goods or services’ guaranteed in the Equality Bill will mean that homosexuals could take legal action against clergy who refused to hold the ceremonies in their church.
Andrea Williams, the director of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “We have seen countless cases where, as a result of similar sorts of legislation, religious adoption agencies have been forced to close and Christians have been forced out of their jobs for acting according to their beliefs.
“This amendment was brought in by a few peers literally at the 11th hour – at 10.59pm – with no proper debate, and yet it fundamentally changes the very nature of civil partnerships.
“There is no doubt that the homosexual lobby will now test it: they will apply for ceremonies in churches and when the minister refuses they will challenge him under the law.
“This is a further blurring of the definition of civil partnerships, which are becoming equivalent to marriage and churches are being forced to treat them as such.”
Mike Judge of the Christian Institute echoed fears that the amendment could leave clergy facing costly law suits.
“We are very concerned about this and it’s a very alarming proposal,” he said. “Even if this amendment says on the face of it that it only applies to those who choose to perform civil partnerships, that will not end up being the case and clergy will end up facing very costly legal bills in order to defend themselves against law suits.
“The Government has failed to understand the nature of religious liberty and has treated faith as nothing more than a matter of personal devotion. Now Christians feel let down and ignored. This is another step in the process of trying to force religions groups to abandon their core beliefs.”
The amendment has yet to be approved in the Commons and Baroness Royall, the leader of the Lords, warned it would “not work in practice”, by blurring the line between marriage and civil partnerships.
A spokesman for the Government Equalities Office said: “Baroness Royall made the Government’s position clear during the debate; we’re now considering our position and deciding what steps to take next.”
The move has been welcomed by equality campaigners, however.
Liberal Jews said they hoped to hold the first-ever civil partnership in a synagogue, while Quakers and Unitarians also want to hold the ceremonies on their premises.
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, Joint Chair of the Rabbinic Conference of Liberal Judaism, said: “We are delighted that our synagogues are now able to host civil partnerships at the same time as same-sex commitment blessings. It is another step towards full equality for gay men and lesbians. My community is looking forward to being able to celebrate its first ever Jewish spiritual blessing together with the English legal ceremony, and to enjoying the whole simcha onsite.”
Peter Tatchell, the veteran campaigner for gay rights, said: “”Our next goal is to secure marriage equality, to end the prohibition on lesbian and gay couples having a civil marriage in a registry office.”
The National Secular Society claimed that bishops opposed the move because of their fears that it will worsen the divide within the Church of England over homosexuality. Blessings of civil partnerships are not allowed in Anglican churches but liberal clergy want this to change.
The NSS’s executive director, Keith Porteous Wood, said: “Could [the bishops’] concern be a selfish one, that when this becomes law many of its own vicars and congregations will carry out these ceremonies regardless of episcopal strictures, leading to schism on yet another front?”
Neil Addison, a barrister specialising in religious discrimination cases, said: “As the Law now stands Churches and Synangogues that are registered to conduct Marriages could easily find themselves being sued for discrimination if they do not register to conduct Civil Partnerships.
“Local Authorities could also refuse to grant or renew marriage authorisation to Churches and Synangogues that do not also apply for Civil Partnership authorisation. The Government should add a new amendment to the Equality Act to make it crystal clear that there is no legal requirement for religious organisations or officials who perform mariages to perform civil partnerships also.”