Peers voted yesterday in favour of the proposal by 95 votes to 21, despite opposition from the government and several Church of England bishops (26 of whom can sit in the Lords as of right).
The current law on same-sex civil partnerships prohibits religious elements. Campaigners say this means that an opposite-sex couple can choose between civil and religious ceremonies, whereas a gay couple cannot.
The proposal takes the form of an amendment to the Equality Bill and was put forward by Labour’s Lord (Waheed) Alli, who is a gay Muslim.
The only bishop to take part in the debate at this stage in the Bill’s passage was David James, Bishop of Bradford, who voted against the amendment. He said it confused civil partnership with marriage. (Civil partnerships, which began in 2005 in the UK, are for same-sex couples only and under current law cannot use religious language or premises.)
The former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, who is now a life peer in his own right (as opposed to being there by default as a bishop), spoke and voted in the amendment’s favour.
Hannah Booth, 24, a Quaker who is in a same-sex partnership, said after the vote: “I’m delighted. I think this could represent a significant progression for Britain.”
She told the liberal Christian think tank Ekklesia, “I’m disappointed that the main opposition seems to have come from a vocal minority within the established Church. I hope that Christians in the UK, regardless of their stance on sexuality, will see this as a triumph for freedom of religious expression.”
Three religious communities have already indicated that they wish to hold legally recognised same-sex ceremonies. They are the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Liberal Judaism and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.
The move has also been supported by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Green Party and the gay human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Last week, several senior Church of England clerics, including the Bishop of Salisbury, David Stancliffe, wrote to The Times
to express their support for the change.
Some peers, notably the Conservatives David Waddington and Norman Tebbit (noted for his antigay views), spoke against the amendment.
They said it could see churches being compelled to carry out same-sex partnership ceremonies against their will. But Waheed Alli disputed this, pointing out that the amendment will give religious groups the freedom to choose
whether to celebrate partnerships.
Ekklesia welcomed the vote, but suggested that the growing diversity of arrangements highlights the need for wide-ranging reform of marriage law. This echoes a call
from the thin tank towards the end of February.
“Tonight’s [Tuesday’s] vote is good news for many devout people who wish to celebrate their love in the context of their faith,” said Ekklesia’s co-director, Symon Hill. “It is important for the religious liberty of the faith communities concerned.”
He added: “An overhaul of marriage law is urgently required to respond to the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society. It is time for a legal change that allows people to enter into marriages or partnerships as a public, communal, and if important to them, a religious commitment, with legal registration being a separate process.
“Not only is this a pragmatic necessity, but it is the best way forward in finding common ground between religious people who take differing positions on issues of sexuality and marriage.”