House of Lords rejects peer’s challenge to religious civil partnership rules

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The motion to reintroduce the ban on civil partnerships in religious premises has been withdrawn by Baroness O’Cathain after it was debated today in the House of Lords.

The Lords has rejected the argument that provisions in the civil partnerships regulations and the Alli Amendment in the Equality Act 2010 will not protect places of religious worship from over-arching equality principles forcing them to perform gay ceremonies alongside weddings.

The legal argument had been put forward by the Christian Institute, CARE and the Evangelical Alliance and was introduced in a debate today by Baroness O’Cathain.

The argument had earlier been rejected by the government and the Church of England, among others.

Speaking after the motion was defeated this afternoon, Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said: “A number of faiths have made it very clear to me and others that they want to allow same-sex couples to have their civil partnership ceremony in their places of worships.

“As a Liberal Democrat, I strongly believe that we should make this possible and that is why the Coalition Government is doing the right thing in allowing these faiths to celebrate the love that two people have for each other.

“From the outset, we made it clear that we would not force any faith to do so and the House of Lords have today recognised that there are appropriate safeguards.

“I look forward to working equally constructively with all interested people and organisations as we move ahead with the Coalition Government’s plan to open up marriage to same-sex couples. Our commitment to equality runs deep, as next year’s consultation on equal marriage will show.”

Ben Summerskill, Stonewall Chief Executive, said: “Christmas has come early for equality. We’re delighted that a campaign of misinformation surrounding this issue has today been seen off by the House of Lords.

“Although only a small number of devout lesbian and gay people will benefit, at Stonewall we will always stand up for minority groups – whether of faith or anything else – within our community. This was an important issue of religious freedom.

“Today’s debate reminds us that there are still vocal opponents of equality for the 3.7 million people in this country who happen to be gay.

“We trust that Baroness O’Cathain and her supporters will now have a little more free time during which to celebrate the second most important festival in the Christian calendar.”

Lord Alli, who tabled the House of Lords amendment to the Equality Act which secured the freedom of religious bodies to perform ceremonies only if they chose to, told the Huffington Post: “I think it happens because first you take a spurious argument. You dress it up in legal language. You get a senior QC or two to write a lot about very little. Then you throw in a very large dose of prejudice.

“Finally you add that secret ingredient: fear. Fear that people will be coerced into acting against their conscience.”

Derek McAuley, Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches said: “The support in the House of Lords is great news for equality and religious freedom. Many Unitarians and Free Christian churches in England and Wales will be keen to take advantage of this opportunity and move forward on registering their premises with individual local authorities.

“As a truly inclusive church we see the provision of civil partnership registration on our premises as a step towards equality and a recognition of the validity of same sex relationships for those who wish their partnership to be celebrated in a religious or spiritual context.”

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard said: “The debate today made clear that there was no real merit in the argument advanced that religious organisations could be forced against their will into allowing civil partnerships to be conducted on their premises.

“It is probably not a co-incidence that those peers who tried to construe a legal argument to this effect seemed to be those most opposed to the principles of civil partnerships.”

Baroness O’Cathain withdrew the motion to annul the new regulations, which came into force on 5 December, at the last minute, before it could be voted on.