The UK Government outlined its plans to legalize same-sex marriage this week, and in a twist revealed that in order to ensure the Church of England’s right to object to gay weddings, the new legislation would de facto ban Anglican ministers from presiding over gay weddings.
Conservative culture secretary Maria Miller outlined the plans before the House of Commons on Tuesday, saying the legislation would allow same-sex couples to access the institution of marriage and those who had already entered into a civil partnership to “upgrade” to a same-sex marriage for a fee of £100.
Miller also outlined the religious exemptions that would be put in place regarding the legalization of gay marriage, saying the legislation would provide for an opt-in system for religious organizations like the Quakers who have said they would like to preside over marriages for same-sex couples.
She clarified the government would amend the Equality Act of 2010 to reflect that no discrimination claim could be brought against a minister or religious institution simply for refusing to marry a same-sex couple.
Miller also outlined specific exemptions for the Church of England and the Church of Wales. The proposed legislation would not affect the canon law of the Church of England or Wales and as such the two groups were de facto banned from holding same-sex marriages until such a time as they opted to change their general opposition to same-sex marriage.
Miller called these religious exemptions a “quadruple lock” as insurance against churches or religious ministers ever being forced into catering for same-sex weddings.
Miller is quoted as saying, “The system of locks will iron-clad the protection in law, adding to the existing protections in European legislation, so that those who do not want to conduct same-sex marriages will never have to.”
Several members of the Church of England, which has displayed some of the strongest opposition to the plans, have indicated that the exemptions may be enough to assuage fears.
Speaking in the House of lords, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, said that many bishops not only accept the protections the Government proposes but would actively support gay marriage.
He said many Church members “warmly welcome” the Government’s plans, adding: “A fair number of individual bishops in the Church of England also support it, but are not able to say so publicly at the moment because of the political situation in which the Church of England now finds itself?”
However, one Anglican bishop from the Church of Wales said the de facto ban through virtue of exempting the Church of England and the Church of Wales is a step too far and that, while attempting to uphold religious freedom, this legislation has in fact curtailed it.
“I think that’s a step too far,” Dr Morgan told BBC Radio Wales.
“This seems to exclude the possibility in the future.”
He said although the Church in Wales was not currently contemplating offering same-sex marriages, he said the church believed in “nurturing family life”.
He said the law had “curtailed” the church’s freedom.
That the Church now effectively will have fewer rights than other religious bodies due to its largely overblown rhetoric against same-sex marriage is an irony that should be lost on no one. Whether this makes the legislation vulnerable to a challenge on religious liberty grounds is something that is the subject of debate.
Regardless, Westminster’s legislation has given the Government of Scotland the confidence to move ahead with its own plans for marriage equality. It published on Wednesday its own legislation with a similar opt-in mechanism that would ensure religious freedom.
Should these plans be voted through, and there is every indication that there is enough support in both England and in Scotland, gay marriage could be legal by 2015.
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