The first Civil Partnerships between same sex couples were entered into in 2005 following the passing of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The numbers of Civil Partnerships peaked in 2006 with 16,106 couples formalising their relationship. Since then the numbers have slowly plateaued but thousands of couples per year continue to “marry” and obtain rights and responsibilities comparable to traditional heterosexual married couples.
It has always however been prohibited for Civil Partnerships to include religious readings, music or symbols. It is also forbidden for those ceremonies of Civil Partnerships to take place in religious venues even where there would be no objection from the church, temple or synagogue etc. concerned.
Equalities Minister Lynn Featherstone however is, by the end of this week, apparently to propose the lifting of the ban on Civil Partnerships taking place in religious settings in England and Wales. This has been made possible by the Labour Peer Lord Waheed Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill last year. His amendment would allow when enabled religious institutions to be permitted to host Civil Partnership ceremonies for gay or lesbian couples.
Lord Alli said yesterday: “I am extremely pleased by the coalition Government’s plan to implement the law as laid out in my amendment to the Equality Act 2010. This will, for the first time, allow gay couples to celebrate their partnerships with their “congregation”.
“I hope that religious leaders and religious institutions will take this change to the law in the same spirit in which it was drafted. It is a permissive change giving those religious institutions who wish to do so the freedom to host ceremonies for gay members of their communities”.
Not all, however, are supportive of this move and Stephen Parkinson, Director of Forward in Faith, traditionalist Anglican movement has said: “It is a matter for Christian churches to order their own affairs, Her Majesty’s Government has no place interfering.”
Some are even fearful that clergy could be forced to conduct “same sex” weddings against their will but this seems an overreaction tempered by the views of several senior Anglican clergymen.
Dr. John Sentamu the Archbishop of York has said: “I live in a liberal democracy and I want equality for everybody. I cannot say the Quakers shouldn’t do it. Nor do I want somebody to tell me that the Church of England must do it or the Roman Catholic Church must do it because actually that is not what equality is about.”
Whether any of the coalition Government’s plans would enable the use of religious elements such as prayers, Bible readings or indeed allow the ceremonies to be formally described as marriages is, as yet, unknown but no doubt pressure will be brought to bear from various lobbying groups to ensure as much change as possible as quickly as practicable
If the announcement goes ahead it will be one step further along the road to allowing legal marriage for same sex couples with the next logical step arguably being to end the ban on same sex Civil Marriages.
In our democratic society the question now seems to be not if but when all couples, no matter what their sexuality will be able to marry in a Civil Ceremony in a Register Office.