Higher fees ‘prohibiting civil partnership ceremonies in religious buildings’

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The fees religious premises must pay before they can hold civil partnerships have been called ‘prohibitive’, with churches, synagogues and mosques required to pay ten times more to host gay civil partnership ceremonies than they do to host straight weddings.

According to Home Office figures, it can cost religious premises in England and Wales twelve times more for a three-year licence to hold civil partnership ceremonies than it does to register for religious weddings due to the “entirely different” approvals processes the two systems operate.

In line with fears expressed during last year’s consultation on civil partnerships in religious buildings, the higher cost of the civil partnership system may now be barring the smaller denominations who want to perform gay ceremonies from doing so and leaving some gay couples unable to tie the knot on their chosen religious ground.

Trevor Rushforth, a minister at the Spiritualist Church in Doncaster told PinkNews.co.uk they were shocked to discover the costs involved after the new regulations allowing civil partnerships to take place on religious premises came into effect last year.

Mr Rushforth told PinkNews.co.uk: “Following the change in legislation for gay and lesbian couples wanting to have a civil partnership within a church, I contacted the council asking them for their fee to register our premises for the civil services, as we are already registered for marriages.

“I was told the fee would be in the region of £1,500 for three years. I queried this and drew their attention to the consultative document in preparation for the legislation coming into force, which says churches were charities and possibly didn’t have much money, so when a fee was being set, the council should bear this in mind. I was rather perturbed to find Doncaster was charging over a thousand pounds.”

Due to the lower administrative burden, registering to perform religious marriages for the first time costs a place of worship in the region of £120. They do not register under the system that hotels and other non-religious wedding venues would use for civil partnerships and civil marriages.

Mr Rushforth continued: “I have checked with a number of councils and checked their fees for commercial premises and church premises. On average, all of them are charging the commercial rate, from £1500 in Rotherham to £500 in Blackpool. Brighton starts at £1,502 for one room.

“It would appear that the law will allow services for same-sex couples but the costs charged by councils is prohibitive for some churches.”

Religious premises must be registered to perform unions with the Registrar General, having first registered as a place of religious worship, costs which should not amount to more than £150 as no site visits are required.

For civil partnerships, local authorities must issue a licence after ensuring adequate fire precautions and health and safety measures for those visiting the venue, which involve site visits and higher costs.

A Home Office guidance paper from December said religious denominations had pointed out the cost of approval for civil partnership at around £1500 compared with the £120 fee for registering a building for marriage may deter some smaller churches from applying.

It says the process of getting a licence for civil partnerships on religious premises and registering to hold a religious marriage are “entirely different, therefore it is not possible to directly compare the two”.

“However, whilst the government does not wish to place an unfunded burden on local authorities it recognises that steps could be taken to reduce costs to local authorities, such as removing the requirement to inspect religious premises, for instance if they already host marriages. This should allow local authorities to reduce their costs and reflect the reduction in the fees they charge, as they are only able to recover their costs of administering the application process.”

The document also notes that England and Wales’s largest Christian denominations have said they will not support applications for civil partnerships in their premises, but that smaller denominations including the Quakers, Liberal Judaism and the Unitarians did.

Doncaster Council did not return messages, but in a letter seen by PinkNews.co.uk, the town’s mayor said they were reviewing the fees to ensure they were not disproportionate and examining whether it was possible to reduce costs without compromising its legal duties.

Reverend Jane Barraclough’s Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester was believed to be the first religious building to be licensed to hold the services last month.

She told PinkNews.co.uk she was “deeply concerned about the price differential”.

She said: “This is an equalities issues because it affects access of the LGBT community to these services. The Unitarian church has just passed a national motion calling for equal access of all people to all forms of marriage and civil partnership, regardless of their sexual orientation. I hope in the middle-term this will overcome these inequalities.”

The Home Office said it had no comment to make as fees were to be determined by local authorities. Between now and 14 June, it is running a consultation on opening civil marriage up to gay and straight couples equally.