Marriage equality officially became law this week in England and Wales, after the British House of Commons passed landmark legislation Tuesday and Queen Elizabeth subsequently granted her royal assent. The bill has had British Prime Minister David Cameron‘s full support since 2011, when he famously called on the Conservative Party to reevaluate its priorities:
Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.
Churches in the United Kingdom are less enthusiastic about Cameron’s Conservative analogy, and they’ve been vocal about it for some time. The Catholic Church in England and Wales acknowledged that the state is on the cusp of “profound social change,” but refuses to take part in it:
“With this new legislation, marriage has now become an institution in which openness to children, and with it the responsibility on fathers and mothers to remain together to care for children born into their family unit, are no longer central. That is why we were opposed to this legislation on principle,” a statement said.
The Church of England likewise has a long and convoluted relationship with this issue. After a hard-fought campaign against marriage equality, the Church announced in June that it would no longer actively try to derail the bill, but that it remained opposed to same-sex marriage and would continue to support measures safeguarding “religious freedom” in light of the imminent law.
Perhaps most upset with the law is the Evangelical Alliance, an organization of thousands of churches and Christian charities. According to David Landrum, the organization’s director of advocacy:
“Marriage has not been extended; it has been redefined and effectively privatised to privilege adult choice. The changes have stripped husband and wife of their obvious meaning and marginalised adultery and consummation. Marriage has been made into a fluid, gender-neutral institution defined by consumer demands and political expediency.”
“It is now the task of the Church to model marriage to a society which has forgotten what it is. In the light of pressures that Christians and others will no doubt face in coming years, this new legal fiction provides a chance to model and preach what marriage really is.”
That’s a pretty interesting claim, because churches are virtually exempt from the U.K.’s marriage equality agreement. Activist Peter Tatchell writes for PinkNews that the Church of England and the Church in Wales are “explicitly banned” from performing religious same-sex marriages. He elaborates:
The special requirements and costs of registering premises for the conduct of religious same-sex marriages are much harsher than for opposite-sex marriages in religious premises. In the case of shared premises, all other sharing faith organisations have to give their permission for the conduct of marriages involving LGBT people. In effect, they have a veto.
CNN’s report of the new law clarifies this claim a bit, but it’s still pretty clear that this bill was not designed with religious folks in mind:
The new law will allow same-sex couples to marry in civil or religious ceremonies. However, religious organizations must explicitly “opt in” if they want to perform such ceremonies, and the religious minister conducting the ceremony must also agree. The law also protects religious organizations and their representatives who don’t wish to conduct marriages of same-sex couples from being challenged in the courts.
It’s becoming more and more obvious that the U.K.’s marriage equality law took every measure possible to appease religious folks and allow them to continue shunning same-sex relationships if they so choose. If that’s what it takes to finally extend equal marriage rights to non-religious same-sex couples, fine. But the excessive religious fine print that accompanied this law shows that it’s anything but an imposition on anti-gay churches. If anything, it alienates LGBT Christians who do want a religious element to their marriages… but you’ll never hear the Church of England acknowledging those couples.
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