Eric Pickles, Britain’s Communities Secretary, has hinted a proposed marriage equality bill in England and Wales will enable churches and faith based organizations to solmenise same-sex marriage.
He did this by stating churches and faith-based organizations should have legal protections to ensure they cannot be forced by the European Court of Human Rights to marry gay couples if they do not wish to do so.
The British government, a coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democract parties, has proposed and already consulted on a change in the law to allow same-sex couples the same marriage rights as heterosexuals.
It was previously thought that new proposed bill for marriage equality in England and Wales would be limited to civil marriages.
But Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called for the proposed new law to go further and allow faith groups which wished to carry out gay marriage ceremonies to be able to do so.
According to experts, the phrasing by Pickles indicates the government may actually be prepared to allow faith organisations, should they choose to, the option to marry same-sex couples.
This was not originally proposed in England and Wales, though it has been included in marriage equality plans in Scotland.
The comment by Pickles comes as Clegg tries to calm a row caused by a statement from his office calling opponents of same-sex unions ‘bigots’.
In this context, Pickles is attempting to reassure church and faith leaders over the same-sex marriage plan in a broad defence of the role of Christianity and faith in Britain.
Pickles made the comments in a Daily Telegraph article where he voiced his support for the role of Christianity in public life, while attacking ‘aggressive secularism’ he says is prevalent in parts of the public sector. But the Telegraph seems not to have picked up on the hint that the government is shifting its attitude towards same-sex religous marriage.
The government’s plans for marriage equality are supported by most of the public and by the three main political parties. But some Conservative MPs and leaders of the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church as well as other faith groups have expressed concern.
Ministers have consistently insisted churches and other faith organisations who do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages would not be forced to do so.
In relations to the concern raised by faith groups Pickles stated: ‘There are legitimate fears of European Court of Human Rights challenges and churches being forced down the line to conduct such ceremonies against their wishes.
‘These concerns need to be explicitly addressed in any legislative reform to provide safeguards against such coercion.’
Commenting on the news, Andy Wasley, from UK gay campaign organization Stonewall, told GSN: ‘We’re very clear that faiths that wish to conduct same-sex marriages should be allowed to, but that no faith should be forced by law to conduct same-sex marriages against its wishes.
‘This is a vital issue of religious freedom. We agree that the law must be clear on this point – just like the amendment to the Civil Partnership Act, which allowed religious institutions to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.’
Civil partnerships in the UK are a ‘separate but equal’ system already allowing same-sex couples broadly the same registration rights as heterosexual marriages.
The amendment referred to above is brought forward through the Equality Act 2010, following lobbying from Stonewall, which stated that: ‘For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so.’
Stonewall and by implication the British government suggest this may be way forward in the proposed marriage equality bill for England and Wales.