Civil partnership, religiously celebrated, moves closer

Symon Hill reports on moves to enable religious groups to perform civil partnership ceremonies.

Quakers are celebrating the result of a dramatic vote in the House of Lords, which would for the first time allow the use of religious premises and religious language in same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.  If the proposal becomes law, it would lead to same-sex partnerships celebrated in Quaker Meetings receiving the same legal recognition as those solemnised in register offices. Campaigners are pushing to ensure that the legislation is not held up by the general election, or hampered by the backlash from anti-gay groups.  Friends have been instrumental in lobbying for the change, as religious elements are currently prohibited in civil partnerships. The proposal was carried by ninety-five votes to twenty-one after 11.00pm on Tuesday 2 March.

It takes the form of an amendment to the Equality Bill and was put forward by Waheed Alli, a gay Muslim and Labour peer.

Ministers suggested that they would work with Alli to redraft the amendment and incorporate it into the Equality Bill. But the government is keen to see the Bill passed before the general election and some fear they may abandon aspects of it in an effort to get the Bill as a whole passed in time.

Nonetheless, the news provoked a jubilant reaction from Quakers and other campaigners.

‘I’m delighted,’ said Hannah, twenty-four, a Quaker who is in a same-sex relationship.

She told the Friend, ‘I hope that people of faith, regardless of their stance on sexuality, will see this as a triumph for freedom of religious expression’.

The vote has also been welcomed by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, Liberal Judaism, the charity Stonewall and the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Several senior Church of England clerics have expressed their support for the change. The bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, a leading evangelical, said he was ‘in sympathy’ with the proposal.

‘The amendment deserved to succeed on the grounds of both equality and religious liberty,’ said Gillian Ashmore on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) of Friends. ‘Same-sex couples who wish to give legal effect to their committed relationships will now be able to do so in a worshipful setting’.

Opposition to the measure has been led by Michael Scott-Joynt, the Anglican bishop of Winchester, who has used his position in the Lords to speak against it. During the debate, the Tory former minister Norman Tebbit also vociferously attacked the amendment.

‘I regret enormously the vote,’ said Scott-Joynt. He predicted that it would lead to Anglican clergy facing legal action ‘if they solemnise marriages… but refuse to host civil partnership signings in their churches’.

Although his prediction received widespread coverage in the media, it was ridiculed by those who pointed out that the amendment will allow faith groups the freedom to choose whether or not to host ceremonies.

‘I cannot see how such an action would get anywhere in a UK court in the face of the clear wording of the Alli amendment,’ said the Quaker academic Iain McLean, professor of politics at Oxford University.

In an open letter to the Bishop, he wrote, ‘Our Yearly Meeting decided to seek what is now the Alli amendment. It is, presumably, for your Synod to discuss the same subject and come to its own view.’

British Friends have been lobbying particularly strongly for marriage equality since BYM resolved in 2009 that same-sex marriages should be celebrated and recorded in exactly the same way as mixed-sex marriages.

While Friends and others wait eagerly to see if the proposal makes it to the statute book, they may also be calling for change to go much further. BYM wants to use the word ‘marriage’ for both same-sex and mixed-sex commitments.

‘We look forward to taking part in further consultations with the government to flesh out the detail of how these proposals will work in practice,’ added Gillian Ashmore.

See An ecumenical Quaker wedding.

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