Church of England lawyers dismiss fears over new civil partnership rules

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The Church of England’s legal team has rejected an argument that regulations on civil partnerships in religious buildings offer insufficient protection for those bodies who do not wish to perform them.

The argument will be put before the House of Lords 15 December and as an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons in a bid to annul the new regulations.

But the Church says the protections offered to them and other religious bodies are sufficient.

An analysis distributed by the Church says because civil partnerships and marriages are separate legal concepts, it is “clear” the Equality Act 2010 cannot be invoked to force a religious institution to perform both.

The Church says: “A gentlemen’s outfitter is not required to supply women’s clothes. A children’s book shop 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.”

The argument set to be made in Westminster says that, despite safeguards built into the Act and regulations designed to prevent this, a local authority could say a church was illegally discriminating against gay people if it presided over marriages but not civil partnerships.

Baroness O’Cathain in the Lords and a group of MPs in the Commons will argue section 29 of the Equality Act could force a church or other place of worship to perform civil partnerships for gay couples if it wanted to perform weddings for straight couples.

Writing for about the dissent in the House of Lords, Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said peers making this argument to oppose the regulations “are using the pretext of there not being enough safeguards as an excuse. Fundamentally, they still do not believe in equality, in live and let live.

The Church of England rejects their argument completely.

Section 29 says a person “concerned with” providing a service to the public must not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Presiding over a marriage and presiding over a civil partnership are, the Church says, two different services, so the discrimination rule in section 29 does not apply.

The argument of Baroness O’Cathain and the Early Day Motion MPs, the Church lawyers suggest, would only work if marriages and civil partnerships were the same public service, if, for example, gay marriage were legal in the UK.

The document says: “A Church which provides couples with the opportunity to marry (but not to register civil partnerships) is ‘concerned with’ the provision of marriage only; it is simply not ‘concerned with’ the provision of facilities to register civil partnerships.”

The Equality Act, it says, does not require a service provider to start providing a second, different service if the first only benefits people of a particular age, sex, or sexual orientation.

Derek McAuley, Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, welcomed the Church of England’s analysis.

He said: “The opposition to implementation of the Regulations in both Houses is an attempt to frustrate the wishes of Parliament when the Equality Act was passed and must not succeed.”