Lynne Featherstone: Churches will not be sued under gay civil marriage proposals

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone has pledged there will be ‘no risk of successful legal challenge’ against religious bodies who are unable to marry gay couples as a result of the government’s gay civil marriage proposals.

Ms Featherstone reaffirmed the government’s position while responding to an oral question in the House of Commons from Conservative MP Dominic Raab last week on the proposals to allow gay couples to marry in civil ceremonies and the consultation currently underway.

Mr Raab asked the Liberal Democrat minister: “I personally support the proposal to allow gay marriage in civil ceremonies.

“I am concerned, and constituents and local clergy have also expressed the concern, that, by redefining marriage, we may — may — expose churches and other religious institutions to legal challenge and force them to marry gay couples under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that our churches will not end up in the dock in Strasbourg?”

Ms Featherstone said the government would “ensure that there is no risk of successful legal challenge against religious organisations that do not marry same-sex couples.”

She continued: “It would not be religious organisations, but the United Kingdom Government in the dock in Strasbourg. We respect and understand the concerns of religious organisations, and we want to work closely with them to give them that reassurance. Just as we were able to reassure Members of this House and the House of Lords about civil partnerships being registered on religious premises to the point where they felt that they could let that pass, we will do the same in this case.”

Last weekend, a group of leading Anglican clergymen wrote to The Times that equal marriage was a cause to celebrate, and that the Church of England has “nothing to fear” on account of extending marriage to same-sex couples.

“We believe the Church has nothing to fear from… civil marriage for same-sex couples,” they wrote, saying it ”will be for the churches to then decide how they respond pastorally.”

They also welcomed recent statements by the Bishop of Salisbury and the new Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, part of a growing number of senior Anglicans calling on the Church to support equal marriage for same-sex couples.

Labour MP for Slough Fiona MacTaggart asked whether Ms Featherstone had spoken to the Archbishop of Wales, who said the church should support long-term committed relationships between gay people, asking whether figures like him might be engaged “to deal with some of the, I am afraid, prejudice, which some of us have faced in our inboxes”.

James Gray, Conservative MP for North Wiltshire said he was “moving towards supporting many of the proposals”, but questioned why, under the current proposals, gay couples would choose between civil partnership and marriage but straight couples could only marry.

Ms Featherstone said questions has been raised on “humanist weddings, straight civil partnerships, civil marriage on religious premises and religious marriage on religious premises for same-sex couples. It was clear in the lead-up to the proposal becoming part of the Government programme that the priority—and the glaring discrimination—is the inability of same-sex couples to have the same rights to civil marriage as other people”.

The Home Office is running an online public consultation on the government proposals to introduce civil marriage equality until 14 June.