I’m Glad We Have a Separation of Church and State

Because in the UK, where they do not, a debate is underway about whether churches should or should not be allowed to perform civil ceremonies for gay couple.  But they’re also debating — as we should, too! — whether “marriage” is a civil function, or a sacerdotal function.  (I’ve got some thoughts on that!)

This month the equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, said the government was committed to removing the legal barrier to civil partnerships’ registration on the religious premises “of those faith groups who choose to allow this to happen”, adding it would be a “permissive measure” with “no obligation on faith groups to host civil partnerships”. The change to the equality bill, known as the Alli amendment, was passed in March 2010.

But peers, led by Lady O’Cathain, will debate the change on 15 December – 10 days after it comes into effect – in an attempt to scupper it entirely amid continued fears that churches will be under pressure to opt in to the voluntary scheme. If successful it would prevent all religious premises from registering civil partnerships – including those happy to do so.

Mark Hill QC, an ecclesiastical lawyer, in a submission to the House of Lords merits of statutory instruments committee, criticised the Alli amendment, calling it “somewhat unsatisfactory”. “It presents a profound difficulty for a significant number of faith groups who regard same-sex relations as inimical to their sincere beliefs, yet (probably more through oversight than design) it only partially satisfies the secularists (and those faith groups for who same-sex relationships are compatible with their beliefs), allowing a religious building to be used for what remains a wholly secular function.”

via Lords debate threatens decision to allow gay weddings in churches | World news | The Guardian.

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  • Tanya

    How does that work. I get why the “state church” might be compelled to support the state’s law (in which case, you could change denominations if it bugs you) — but it’s the downside to being supported by state power for so long. Right?

    How on earth could they compel Catholic priests, or any organization with private status, from doing as it chooses?

  • The situation is certainly messed up.

    The Church of England (i.e. the Anglican Episcopal Church in England) is indeed an arm of the state: in this regard it has to marry anyone who presents themselves (the only discussion being about which parish a particular individual can be married in, based on residence and other connections). In this, it has a completely different system of registration from the system used by all other churches, other faiths, and secular weddings. In the latter, there is a legal distinction between civil weddings and religious weddings: you’re not allowed to pray, or mention [gG]od in a civil ceremony. These faith communities who are registered to conduct religious weddings can marry any [man-woman] couple they choose, or deny marriage to anyone they choose.

    Cutting across this is this well-meaning but mis-designed law intending to give faith communities the right to conduct civil partnerships if they so wish – notwithstanding the fact that civil partnerships are subject to all the same restrictions as civil weddings. So (a) it’s anomalous to have them in church anyway (because it’s illegal to pray at the ceremony), and (b) it’s a very long way, in law, from the kind of weddings that the Church of England holds.

    I doubt that there are very many people who understand even this much, let alone all the subtleties lost on me. I’ve certainly not seen a single newspaper comment which does so. And so teasing out the legal arguments on the point at issue – whether allowing religious premises to hold civil partnerships will give rise to an obligation (under equality law) to conduct a ceremony for any same-sex couple wanting such a non-religious (by law) religious civil partnership ceremony is, at best, obscure.

    All of this is just a warm-up for next year’s consultation on how to enact civil marriage equality for same-sex couples, which will be at least as obscure, I’m sure.

    Would separating church and state help? Well, maybe, probably, but I don’t think many of those involved really understand how convoluted the law has become in any case.

  • Patrick

    So keep the state out of our religion but make sure it is in control of our health care, and financial services? Why the marked difference in philosophy? Why shouldn’t the wonders of the state be shared by all, equally?