Yesterday, the British Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, unveiled plans to introduce a law allowing consenting churches to hold gay marriage ceremonies. This has been a long time coming and enjoyed a ground swell of popular support over the last couple of years.
Of course there have been the hard liners shouting from upon high about the moral decay of society, but generally, this new law is widely supported. What has raised eyebrows is the explicit exemption from the new law for the Church of England and the Church of Wales.
The reason for this, apparently, is that they both stated strong opposition to the law and have therefore been given their own little legal exemption. It’s now illegal for the Church of England and Church in Wales to conduct gay marriage ceremonies. For all other religious groups, the law is an opt-in system. This means a religious group must explicitly state it wishes to perform gay marriage ceremonies before the government will allow it to do so.
Even with this exemption, the churches — along with their Roman Catholic and Protestant allies — are still opposed to the law and are expected to campaign heavily against it when it comes up for vote in the House of Commons sometime before the next election in 2015. Some religious groups, however, are in favor of the new law. Quakers, Unitarians, and Liberal Jews have all voiced support for the measure as they wish to be able to conduct gay marriages in their churches and will opt-in to being able to do so.
In order to protect religious freedom in all of this mess, the Culture Secretary has promised to include a “quadruple lock” system:
- No religious organization or individual minister will be compelled to marry same-sex couples or permit the marriages to happen on their premises
- It would be illegal for religious organizations or their ministers to marry same-sex couples unless their governing bodies have expressly opted in to provisions for doing so
- The 2010 Equality Act will be amended to ensure no discrimination claim can be brought against religious organizations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple
- The legislation explicitly states that it will be illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry same-sex couples, and that Canon Law, which bans same-sex weddings, will continue to apply
Introducing the measure, Miller added:
The Church of England and Church in Wales had explicitly stated their opposition to offering same-sex ceremonies, so the government will explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples. I am absolutely clear that no religious organisation will ever be forced to conduct marriages for same-sex couples, and I would not bring in a bill which would allow that. European law already puts religious freedoms beyond doubt, and we will go even further by bringing in an additional ‘quadruple legal lock’. But it is also a key aspect of religious freedom that those bodies who want to opt in should be able to do so.
A number of ministers who oppose the introduction of same-sex marriage questioned both the government’s right to interfere with their duties and the possible effects this law will have on society. Most of the opposition has come from the government’s own party. Conservative Member of Parliament Peter Bone asked, “How dare the secretary of state try to redefine marriage?” Another Conservative MP, Richard Drax, said: “I would like to ask the Secretary of State and the government what right have they got, other than arrogance and intolerance, to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?” Sir Tony Baldry, who speaks for the Church of England in Parliament, said: “For the Church of England, the uniqueness of marriage is that it does embody the distinctiveness of men and women. So removing from the definition of marriage this complementarity is to lose any social institution where sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.”
I’m not really sure where I stand on this in a practical sense. On a purely moral level, it’s easy — same-sex marriage should be legal in all places and open to all people. Of course, this law won’t go anywhere near that far with all its protections for religious freedom, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. In a practical sense, I think the longer the churches hold out against same-sex marriage, the more their congregations will simply walk out in disgust, especially among the younger members of society. So, in that regard, I think some of these exemptions are a few more nails in the coffin for state-sponsored religion in this country.