Christian churches must be banned from performing any marriages if they refuse to hold civil partnerships ceremonies for gay couples, a Conservative MP has demanded.
Mike Weatherley has urged the Prime Minister to show no toleration to churches which turn away gays and lesbians who seek to marry in their premises.
The Hove and Portslade MP has in turn been criticised by Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton for “over-stepping the mark”.
In a letter to David Cameron the south coast MP had said that the proposed Coalition amendment to the 2010 Equality Act to allow religious bodies or individual places of worship to register the controversial ceremonies would remain “unfair” as long as heterosexuals could marry in the churches of their choice.
The law must instead be changed to compel churches to register civil partnerships, said Mr Weatherley, whose constituency near Brighton which has one of the highest numbers of gay couples in civil partnerships in the country.
He told Mr Cameron to follow a precedent he suggested had been set by laws compelling 11 Catholic adoption agencies to assess gay couples as potential adopters and foster parents, although most of them have either since closed or left the control of the church.
Mr Weatherley said that the alternative would be to surrender to a “messy compromise” in which gays would remain the victims of inequality.
“I am becoming increasingly concerned about the inequality which exists between the unions of same-sex couples and those of opposite-sex couples in this country,” he said in his letter.
“As long as religious groups can refuse to preside over ceremonies for same-sex couples, there will be inequality,” he said.
“Such behaviour is not be tolerated in other areas, such as adoption, after all.”
Mr Weatherley described the 2004 Civil Partnership Act, which permitted legal recognition of same-sex unions, as an “uneasy truce” between campaigners for equality and people who sought to uphold the religious significance of marriage.
He added that until “we untangle” marriage from religion “we will struggle to find a fair arrangement”.
Bishop Conry, whose diocese encompasses Mr Weatherley’s constituency, said that the churches had a right to operate by “their own practices and behaviour”.
“The Church is a voluntary organisation and if you belong to it then you abide by its rules,” Bishop Conry said.
“The law in this country recognises that there is no parity between civil partnerships and marriage,” the bishop added. “What he [Mr Weatherley] wants is a change in the law because he is not in a position to tell the Catholic Church what to do.”
At present civil partnerships can be held in register offices and non-religious venues such as hotels. During the ceremonies there can be no manifestation of religious belief, such as icons or other imagery.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition wants to create an “opt-in” system whereby places of worship can choose to register gay ceremonies alongside the existing venues.
The Government has admitted in its public consultation document, however, that the proposals could lead to litigation against churches that do not opt in.
In response to the public consultation, Fr Marcus Stock, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, stated clearly that “the Catholic Church in England and Wales will not allow civil partnerships to be registered on its premises”.
He said: “Religious premises exist to meet the needs of the religion concerned. The activities that take place within them must be in accordance with the beliefs and practices of that religion, as determined by its proper authorities.
“No other body can have the right to decide that activities contrary to the religion’s teaching may take place on its premises – to do so would be a flagrant breach of the right to freedom of religion under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Brighton priest Fr Ray Blake also accused Mr Weatherley of ignoring the convictions of not only nearly all of the Christians of his constituency but also of the many Jews and Muslims who lived there.
He said the MP appeared to want to push all who held a “traditional notion” of marriage “to the margins of society”.
The Rev Nick Donnelly, a Catholic deacon from Lancaster, said on his Protect the Pope blog that the MP’s demands revealed that the churches “have every reason to fear that the next phase of the campaign to establish pseudo-gay marriages will be to coerce them to accept homosexuals or be banned from holding marriages”.
He said: “They’ve banned the Catholic Church from placing children for adoption, now the stage is being set to ban us from holding marriages.”
But gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell supports the rights of churches to decide the matter for themselves on the grounds that it was the “democratic and decent thing to do”.