Religious groups in the United Kingdom have welcomed a new law that will allow them to use their premises for same-sex “marriage” ceremonies.
The new law is part of the Equality Bill, has which passed through its final stages in the lower legislative chamber, the House of Commons, after its passage through the upper house, the Lords.
Lords voted in March 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.
Many religious groups have opposed the measure, claiming that churches would be forced to provide space for same-sex ceremonies, but this was never the intention. Churches can apply to register their premises – or decide not to.
“The Bill will provide for an order-making power to register religious premises for conducting civil partnership ceremonies in England and Wales,” explains the religion think tank Ekklesia.
“It made clear that nothing in the amendment could compel religious organisations to conduct civil partnerships against their conscience – contrary to unfounded claims made by the Anglican Bishop of Winchester and some others.”
Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews had lobbied peers to support the amendment.
Quakers have traditionally been supportive of gay equality. Gillian Ashmore, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain said: “This provision in the Equality Bill represents a small but emblematic step towards the goal of full gay equality . . . This will make many people happy. We look forward to working with a government of whatever political complexion in giving effect to the intention of parliament.”
At their 2009 yearly meeting in York, Quakers called for a change in the law so that same-sex marriages could be prepared, celebrated, witnessed, reported to the state, and recognized as legally valid, without further process, in the same way as opposite-sex marriages are celebrated in Quaker meetings.
“Quakers already offer religious blessings (meetings for worship for commitment) to couples who have civil partnerships,” says Ekklesia, “but the yearly meeting was clear that they wanted same-sex couples to be able to have a Quaker marriage.”