UK: Equality and Human Rights Commission says same-sex marriage bill poses no threat to religious opponents

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has dismissed claims that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill poses a threat to religious freedom.

In evidence handed to a committee of MPs that are studying the government’s bill for England and Wales, the commission stated that legal attempts to force religious institutions into marrying gay couples would be “extremely likely to fail.”

Earlier this week, Lord David Pannick QC said it would take a “legal miracle” for religious bodies to be forced to conduct same-sex marriages.

Because “freedom to manifest religion or belief” is enshrined in the Human Rights Act, as well as in Article 9 of the European Convention, the EHRC believes clergy opposed to equal marriage would not be at risk of legal action.

The EHRC also sees “no reason why employees of all kinds will not remain free to express their views about same-sex marriage.” They, too, would enjoy the full protection of Article 9. Furthermore, the Equality Act itself protects employees from direct and indirect discrimination, and also unfair dismissal, because of their religion or belief.

Education Secretary Michael Gove recently sought to reassure critical Tory MPs at the Public Bill Committee that the government’s bill poses no threat to teachers who disagree with the reform.

In giving evidence to the committee on Tuesday, William Fittall, a senior lawyer for the Church of England, praised the government’s set of legal safeguards in the bill, and said: “we think [they] have been done well.”

The bill states that the Church of England’s Canon law – which bans the marriage of same-sex couples – will continue to apply; meaning it would require a change in both primary and Canon law before the Church of England and the Church in Wales would be able to provide marriages for gay couples.