The Church Times has a report today, by Ed Beavan which is only available to paid subscribers until next week, headlined Lawyers dispute civil partnership opt-ins for sacred venues. (£)
A SUBMISSION by a leading ecclesiastical lawyer, Professor Mark Hill QC — which says that the planned changes to the regulations on civil partnerships in religious premises could lead to “costly litigation” for faith groups who object in conscience — has been challenged by an Oxford academic…
…From a more general point of view, the Objectors‘ position becomes clearer. Rather than objecting to the Proposed Regulations, which offer all the protection available to faith groups, denominations, individual ministers and congregations, which is available under the existing regime for licensing religious premises for conducting marriages, Objectors wish section 202 had never been passed in the first place. They want a second chance to defeat the principle of the Alli amendment. In order to accomplish this, they have used every effort to identify problems with the regulatory regime that cannot be solved without a complete overhaul of English marriage law, as well as the Equality Act itself. Rather than offering constructive suggestions for modifying the Proposed Regulations, which the GEO could incorporate into its regime, they have put the perfect (in their view) in the way of the possible.
Neither the GEO nor the legislature should cave in to these efforts. The regulatory scheme proposed and submitted to the legislature offers every protection to the Objectors which is available under English law and applicable human rights and equality laws. They should be permitted to go into force as planned.
Yesterday, after the Church Times had gone to press, the Church of England’s Legal Office published its opinion, which also disagrees with Mark Hill.
…5. The question has been raised in Parliament and elsewhere of whether a religious denomination, or a local church, which declined to seek to have its premises approved for the registration of civil partnerships could be held to be discriminating in a way which is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. The clear view of the Legal Office is that it could not. This is also the declared view of the Government’s lawyers.
6. A key relevant provision is section 29 of the Equality Act which makes it unlawful for “a person (a “service-provider”) concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public” to discriminate on various grounds, including sexual orientation, “against a person requiring the service by not providing the person with the service”. A Church which provides couples with the opportunity to marry (but not to register civil partnerships) is “concerned with” the provision of marriage only; it is simply not “concerned with” the provision of facilities to register civil partnerships.
7. That would be a different “service”, marriage and civil partnership being legally distinct concepts. If Parliament were in due course to legislate for same sex marriage, as recently suggested by the Prime Minister, we would of course be in new territory. But that is a separate issue which would have to be addressed in the course of that new legislation.
8. The non-discrimination requirement imposed by the Equality Act on service-providers does not include a requirement to undertake the provision of other services that a service-provider is not already concerned with providing just because the services that it currently offers are of such a nature that they tend to benefit only persons of a particular age, sex, sexual orientation etc. Thus, for, example, a gentlemen’s outfitter is not required to supply women’s clothes. A children’s book shop is not required to stock books that are intended for adults. And a Church that provides a facility to marry is not required to provide a facility to same-sex couples for registering civil partnerships…
Meanwhile, over in the House of Commons, Edward Leigh MP has tabled an Early Day Motion to annul the new regulations. See this report in the Catholic Herald MP takes on Government over same-sex regulations.
And this report in the Telegraph by Martin Beckford Tory MPs try to stop civil partnerships in places of worship.