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05 December 2011

No civil partnerships without General Synod’s consent

No civil partnerships without General Synod’s consent

The Church of England will not allow its churches to be used for civil partnership ceremonies unless the General Synod gives its consent.

This comes in direct response to the amendment to the Equality Act of 2010, which came into effect on Monday, 5 December. The change in law gives people the right to have their civil partnership ceremonies within places of worship in England and Wales. However, the government has said that no religious group will be forced to conduct ceremonies.

There are still fears within religious organisations that they will face legal action on human rights grounds if they refuse. Indeed, before Monday, a group of Conservative backbenchers signed an Early Day Motion calling for the scrapping of the rule change before it came into effect.

Led by Edward Leigh MP, they believed the issue had not been debated properly. As Mr Leigh explains: "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."

The Alliance's head of public affairs, Don Horrocks, said: "There are some complex legal concerns that experts believe could place churches at risk of future challenge. While the seriousness of these concerns is a matter of dispute, the government has nevertheless tried to push the legislation through Parliament without any debate whatsoever. We believe the underlying issue is a matter of public concern which needs proper examination, debate and clarification. Accordingly we have pressed for the proposals to be debated in the House of Lords, which will now happen on 15 December."

Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone said: "The government is advancing equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people and ensuring freedom of religion for people of all faiths.

"No religious group will be forced to host a civil partnership registration, but for those who wish to do so this is an important step forward."

The Church of England made its position clear again when its secretary general William Fittall wrote to almost 500 members of its governing body. His letter states that "no Church of England religious premises may become 'approved premises' for the registration of civil partnerships" without a formal decision made by the General Synod, which is made up of clergy, bishops and lay people.

The Church of England's lawyers say that this move does not constitute unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act as marriage and civil partnerships are different services and so legally distinct concepts.

In a statement, they said: "A gentlemen's outfitter is not required to supply women's clothes. A children's bookshop is not required to stock books that are intended for adults. And a Church that provides a facility to marry is not required to provide a facility to same-sex couples for registering civil partnerships."

If legislation was changed in favour of same-sex marriage, this issue would need to be addressed again.