A Catholic MP is resisting Government plans to push through a measure permitting same-sex civil ceremonies on religious premises without formal debate or scrutiny in the House of Commons.
Edward Leigh MP is seeking to prevent regulations from coming into force which lift the ban on hosting civil ceremonies on religious premises. The removal of the ban was approved in the House of Lords last year.
Lord Alli tabled an amendment to the Equality Act in March 2010 to lift the ban after some Jewish and Quaker communities voiced their support for the change in the law.
But concern has been raised among some religious groups, peers and MPs that permitting civil ceremonies on religious premises will prompt legal action against priests or ministers who refuse to register civil partnerships.
The legislative procedures used by the Government to ratify this change have provoked particular disquiet as it would exclude debate in the House of Commons.
Edward Leigh has tabled an Early Day Motion to annul the new regulations. He said: “These regulations don’t do what the Government promised which is to protect churches that do not want to register civil partnerships. It is an issue of the utmost seriousness. Yet the Commons currently isn’t even being given a chance to debate them.
“We’ve seen all this before. The Sexual Orientation Regulations went through Parliament without proper scrutiny and they closed down our adoptions agencies as a result. If the Government cares anything about the churches, it will withdraw these regulations and think again.”
If Mr Leigh’s motion galvanises the Government, a committee will be formed of approximately 30 MPs who will revisit the regulations and put their conclusions to the House of Commons.
If members object to the committee’s findings, then the regulations will be voted on by MPs but without debate on the floor of the House. But this pause in the regulations’ legislative passage is down to the discretion of the Government.
Although the situation is still uncertain in the House of Commons, Baroness O’Cathain has secured a debate for December 15 in the House of Lords which seeks to annul the regulations that will lift the current ban. Members of the house have traditionally been allowed a free vote on this issue as a matter of conscience.
Christian lobbyists are particularly concerned that Parliament re-examines Lord Alli’s amendment because they say it did not receive sufficient parliamentary scrutiny or support at the time of its passage.
Simon Calvert, spokesman for the Christian Institute, said: “The Government has chosen to legislate in a way that allows no scrutiny in the Commons, and very little in the Lords. There is no opportunity to amend the regulations. Peers concerned for religious freedom have no option but to try to vote them down. We must hope they succeed.
“The original amendment which gave rise to the regulations was passed in irregular circumstances. Only 95 peers voted for it, and 21 against. The Labour government pulled a surprise late night vote when only supporters of the amendment were still present. They listed a series of major flaws with the amendment, but declined to vote it down. It was reckless.
“The Coalition Government is reinforcing the error with these regulations.”
Neil Addison of the Thomas More Legal Centre said that on the surface the regulations to lift the ban on civil ceremonies on religious premises were innocuous.
But, he said that the use of the Equality Act by local authorities could result in them refusing to register churches for marriage unless they perform civil ceremonies.
He said: “As they are drafted the regulations deal with concerns because they are very clear that no religious organisation will be obliged to host civil partnerships.
“The problem is that in all areas of law these days you can’t just look at these regulations in isolation because the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act will affect them.
“The real danger is the possibility of churches being sued under the Equality Act for refusing to host civil partnerships.
“But what I think is much more likely is that local authorities will refuse to register churches for marriage unless the churches are willing to host civil partnerships. This will affect Catholic churches, synagogues, and many other denominations.”
He said that in future years registration of Catholic marriages may take place outside of Mass.