Gay men and women will finally be allowed to marry in churches after the House of Lords dramatically voted in favour of lifting the ban on religious premises holding same-sex partnerships.
The amendment to the Equality Bill, which was tabled as a free vote by gay Muslim peer Waheed Alli, received overwhelming backing in the Lords, including from a number of prominent Anglican bishops.
Under current UK law religious venues are forbidden from holding civil partnerships, although some liberal denominations within Christianity and Judaism have been willing to bless gay unions once a partnership ceremony has taken place elsewhere.
The lifting of the ban, which still needs to be approved by the House of Commons, will now give religious venues the option of conducting civil partnerships – but it will not compel them to do so, as some traditionalists had feared.
Lord Alli denied the suggestion that religious communities would be forced to accept gay marriages.
“Religious freedom cannot begin and end with what one religion wants,” he said. “This amendment does not place an obligation on any religious organisation to host civil partnerships in their buildings. But there are many gay and lesbian couples who want to share their civil partnership with the congregations that they worship with. And there are a number of religious organisations that want to allow gay and lesbian couples to do exactly that.”
Gay rights activists and members of churches that have pushed for a lifting of the ban hailed the Lords’ decision as victory for equal rights and religious expression.
But the amendment has caused consternation among religious figures who are opposed to homosexuality and fear that they could eventually face costly legal battles if they sacked or disciplined clergy who ignored their own prohibitions on gay marriage.
The vote came just hours before the last remaining Catholic adoption agency went to the High Court to try and force the government to allow it to continue refusing to place adoptees with homosexual foster parents.
Since 2005 adoption agencies have been compelled to consider gay applicants with the result that all but one of Britain’s Catholic adoption agencies have either shut down or had to disassociate themselves from the Catholic Church.
Dr Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs for the Evangelical Alliance, said he feared a similar thing could happen to churches that continued to refused to offer gay ceremonies.
“We don’t want to see in a few years’ time churches ending up in the same boat, where they are forced to comply with anti-discrimination law or close down,” he said.
For the Church of England the amendment is equally problematic. Although a small number of Anglican clergy will inevitably consider holding civil partnerships in their churches, they would still be technically forbidden from doing so under the Church of England’s canon law which can only be changed by the General Synod or the House of Bishops.
Gay marriages in churches will not happen immediately because the amendment must still be approved by the House of Commons. MPs are unlikely to oppose it because the vote was so overwhelming in the Lords. But with a general election and change of parliament coming up it could be months before the Commons actually gets round to debating the ban.
The amendment is a major victory for religious groups who have no theological problems with the idea of marrying gays in their religious venues.
Three religious communities – the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Liberal Judaism and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches – have already said that they wish to hold legally recognised same-sex partnerships. Some liberal clergy within Methodist, Baptist and Anglican denominations could also conceivably open their doors to gay weddings.
Many religious gay campaigners hope that the lifting of the ban will eventually lead to gay couples being allowed to use the word “marriage”, rather than civil partnerships.
The liberal Christian think-tank Ekklesia yesterday called on the government to entirely overhaul Britain’s marriage laws and separate the legal process of registration from religious ceremonies. Many believe such a step would allow both objectors to gay marriage and supporters to find a way of expressing their beliefs freely and openly within British law.
“An overhaul of marriage law is urgently required to respond to the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society,” said co-director Symon Hill. “It is time for a legal change that allows people to enter into marriages or partnerships as a public, communal, and if important to them, a religious commitment, with legal registration being a separate process.”
Quakers are most likely to start conducting civil partnerships in their churches as soon as the ban is legally lifted. Last year they took the unprecedented step of announcing that they wanted to give gay couples full marriage ceremonies. The move was significant because, like rabbis and Church of England priests, Quaker registrars are allowed to marry people on behalf of the state.
Chris Campbell, a Quaker who is in a long term relationship with a Roman Catholic, told The Independent that many gay Christians want to see the day when they can have a civil partnership in their church.
“I really wasn't comfortable with the idea of going to a civil registrar: it's not what marriage is about for us,” he said. “It's a solemn and binding commitment in the presence of God. Without some recognition of that religious element, it certainly put me off the idea of getting married.”
He believes many churches will be able to improve their image once they are no longer banned from holding civil ceremonies. “There are not one but two causes for celebration,” he said. “Not only are people in same-sex relationships closer than ever before to having their love recognised in the same way as any other committed Christian couple, but it's also a triumph for the image of the church. Some people now see the Church as being out-of-touch, but this amendment demonstrates otherwise: it gives Churches the right to hold civil partnerships on their premises if they choose. They'll finally have the choice to act on the conclusions they've come to after their own prayerful discussions, and that's got to be a good thing.”