The Archbishop of Southwark has welcomed a Government promise to protect freedom of conscience following the introduction of civil partnerships on religious premises.
The Government has come under increasing criticism from religious groups since the introduction of regulations to permit civil partnerships on religious premises without a debate in the House of Commons.
But an assurance was successfully sought from the Government in the House of Lords last Thursday when Baroness O’Cathain, a Conservative peer, tabled a motion to overturn existing regulations.
Baroness O’Cathain withdrew the motion following assurances from Government Minister Lord Henley that no religious person would be forced to permit a civil partnership on their premises.
Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark welcomed the outcome of the debate. On behalf of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales he said: “I was very glad to read the clear assurance given by Lord Henley for the Government in the debate in the House of Lords on December 15 on civil partnerships in religious premises.
“We had sought such an assurance to avoid any legal challenge to the regulations and to make clear beyond any doubt that the regulations and the Equality Act safeguard the legitimate freedom of churches not to allow such ceremonies on their own premises.
“At the end of the debate the Minister gave a very clear assurance to this effect, and said: ‘It is proper to say that it is Parliament’s intention that that is the position.’”
Speaking in the debate in the House of Lords, Lord Henley said: “We recognise that in allowing this expression of religious freedom and advancement for lesbian, gay and bisexual equality, we need to ensure that there are sufficient protections from legal challenge for faith groups who do not wish to host partnerships on their premises.
“We are confident that faith groups will not be forced to host civil partnership registrations on their premises if they do not wish to do so.”
In a briefing note circulated to peers ahead of the debate, the bishops said: “While we believe that the regulations do provide necessary legal protection, our understanding of the position does not amount to a legal certainty, and some legal opinions suggest that there are circumstances in which it is conceivable that a church might possibly be challenged for not consenting to civil partnerships on its premises. And, as has been noted, this is an area of law which is new and evolving where lobby groups will want to test the boundaries.
“Unsurprisingly, some religious groups remain very concerned about what may only be a theoretical possibility, but which would nonetheless be very damaging if it came to pass. And even if a challenge were unlikely to succeed, no church should have to face the concern and legal expense involved given that the Government’s intentions were to protect their free choice.”
Catholic MP Edward Leigh also tried to overturn the regulations in the House of Commons but the Government did not schedule a debate.
The Government’s latest reassurance is particularly significant for campaigners on both sides of the debate because of a landmark ruling in 1992 known as “Pepper versus Heart”.
Since this ruling, when questions of legal ambiguity arise judges may refer to statements made previously in Parliament in order to determine what exactly the implications of certain laws are and what Parliament did and did not intend when the law was passed.
The bishops’ conference and other religious campaigners will be reassured that Lord Henley’s statement will mitigate the threat of future legal challenges to churches who refuse to host civil partnerships.
Following the Sexual Orientations Regulations in 2007 controversy surrounding religious freedoms and gay rights has escalated.
A gay couple were awarded £1,800 in damages at the beginning of this year when a Christian couple who owned a bed and breakfast refused to give the couple a double bed because they believed that sex outside marriage was a sin.
Catholic adoption agencies which conscientiously object to placing children with gay couples have also been forced to sever ties with their Catholic diocese or close down following the Sexual Orientations Regulations.
The Coalition has also announced its intention to legalise gay marriage before the next election.
The Government will launch a formal consultation on the initiative next spring, during which Archbishop Smith has said that the bishops’ conference will oppose legislation in “the strongest terms”.