Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has become the next senior religious figure in the United Kingdom to speak out against civil marriage equality proposals, saying that any government assurances that churches would not have to solemnize or otherwise recognize marriage equality could not be trusted.
“The church is not in this to protect its own interest, it is in this discussion for the sake of wider society in this country generally,” he said.
“On this issue the church is not just talking about themselves and their rights, they are talking about the wider good of society and therefore must be listened to.”
He added that in light of a string of recent court cases in which religious people with strongly held views have clashed with equality legislation, the Government reassurances on religious marriage could not be relied upon even if sincerely made.
He said: “Given the direction that legislation has taken recently where conscience has not been legally recognised, how can we be sure that any assurances given to the church at this time will not later be overtaken first by an amendment which allows such marriages to take place in religious premises and later on a case is brought by someone which rules that it is discriminatory not to do so?”
As to Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s concern regarding churches being forced to carry out or otherwise recognize same-sex marriage if civil marriage equality is recognized, it is important to note that Britain’s equality laws protect a right to religious belief and expression. While not giving belief unlimited scope to manifest in the public sphere, any church not wishing to solemnize same-sex marriages in a religious and private context is already protected from being forced to do so, and is further protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, if the bishop is especially concerned, the marriage equality legislation put through Parliament could be specifically amended to reinforce this point.
While an appeal to history is not always fruitful for proof of an argument, noting that Britain’s churches have never once been required to solemnize or hold civil unions against their wishes is important — indeed, past legislation has specifically provided wording to prevent such a requirement and the marriage equality legislation being proposed would seem to echo that given that it deals solely with civil marriage.
Whether churches who wish to be able to solemnize or cater for a religious same-sex marriage should be able to do so is a separate issue, but one that should perhaps give the bishop pause as he, and other religious figures and groups, seem to be trying to categorize this as a clear-cut fight between religion and gay rights when in fact groups like the The Movement for Reform Judaism have come out in favor of marriage equality.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien has recently had to defend comments he made that legalizing civil same-sex marriage is the same as legalizing slavery.