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Bishops welcome Government assurance on civil unions

By on Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Baroness O'Cathain tabled a motion to overturn civil partnerships regulations during a debate in the Lords last week (Photo: PA)

Baroness O'Cathain tabled a motion to overturn civil partnerships regulations during a debate in the Lords last week (Photo: PA)

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”.

  • KeelAJ

    David Cameron`s speech saying UK is a Christian country is full of hypocrisy.
    I know from personal experience that practising Christians are not welcome
    when it comes to fostering or adopting children.
    If I were to read aloud in a public place St Paul`s Letter to the Romans from the
    King James Bible the police would shut me up.

  • Anonymous

    Does

    ‘oppose in the strongest terms’

    mean exactly the same as the

    ‘strongly oppose’

    …which Bishop Hines stated was the Church’s position in the CBCEW 2003 deposition to the Government consultation on Civil Partnerships ?

    In other words by 2020 same sex marriage will be acceptable to our hierarchy as Civil partnerships are now?

  • Anonymous

    “The Archbishop of Southwark has welcomed a Government promise to protect freedom of conscience following the introduction of civil partnerships on religious premises.”

    ## Now that the Churches *know* they are protected by law from having to go against their consciences and doctrines, perhaps they will leave LGBT people, & any others affected, to get on with their lives. Bishops, Catholic or other, don’t have to like LGBT unions, but they have no right in civil law to hinder them.

  • John

    The pressure is coming not from the Catholic Church but from lobby groups such as Stonewall whose aim is to silence any opposition to the homosexual agenda of forcing society to accept homosexuality as completely normal and even desirable.

  • KeelAJ

    To-days Government can not promise what the next Government will do.
    The Law can be changed.

  • Anonymous

    Archbishop Smith obviously hasn’t read the CDF directive:

    SOME CONSIDERATIONS
    CONCERNING THE RESPONSE TO LEGISLATIVE PROPOSALS
    ON THE NON-DISCRIMINATION OF HOMOSEXUAL PERSONS

    16. Finally, where a matter of the common good is concerned, it is inappropriate
    for Church authorities to endorse or remain neutral toward adverse legislation
    even if it grants exceptions to Church organizations and institutions. The
    Church has the responsibility to promote family life and the public morality of
    the entire civil society on the basis of fundamental moral values, not simply to
    protect herself from the application of harmful laws

  • Anonymous

    If Nick (No University Fees) Clegg remains only a heart-beat away from power in this country, how long do you think this ‘assurance’ from the Government will be honoured?

  • Anonymous

    IOW, the Church is Hell-bent on telling politicians what to do, and the mandate they receive from the electorate (Note to Vatican: electorsate = people who vote for politicans to represent them and thejur views in national government)

  • Anonymous

    Not at all – rather the Church is reminding Catholics of their dignity and duty to the Truth – the Person of Christ ,and to never collude, conspire or collaborate with its enemies – no matter what price they offer….