“Marriage of same sex couples is lawful”, begins the Government’s new Equal Marriage Bill, which will, amongst other things, make it legal for gay couples to marry in both civil and religious ceremonies.
Religious communities will not be forced to conduct ceremonies, but will be able to ‘opt-in’ to the new system. However, Church of England communities will not be permitted to opt in even if they want to. The progress Bill can be tracked here – the next reading is in the House of Commons on 5 February. The Bill is summarised as follows:
A Bill to make provision for the marriage of same sex couples in England and Wales, about gender change by married persons and civil partners, about consular functions in relation to marriage, for the marriage of armed forces personnel overseas, and for connected purposes.
Marriages on religious premises will be lawful but only if (a) the ‘relevant governing authority’ (defined as “recognised by the members of the relevant religious organisation as competent for the purpose of giving consent for the purposes of this section”) has ‘opted in’ to the new system, and (b) the religious premises are related to the Church of England (section 4).
The Bill will insert a new provision into the Equality Act 2010 to make clear that there can be “no compulsion to solemnise” (s.2(5)), which means that nobody will be able to bring a claim under the Equality Act arguing that they should be allowed to marry on religious premises where the governing religious authority has not ‘opted in’.
The Explanatory Notes have not been released yet, as far as I can tell, but the Government’s response to the Equal Marriage consultation provides the rationale and can be read here. In particular, see paragraph 1.3 (‘legal position’) which explains why Church of England premises are to be excluded under the ‘quadruple lock’ [update – the explanatory notes are here].
My prediction: the bill will be passed more or less as proposed, and the ban on Church of England equal marriages will be challenged in the courts. This may or may not succeed, but the ban will ultimately be lifted anyway. If it is the case that there are Church of England officials who want to marry willing gay Church of England couples, it does seem potentially unfair that they will be the only religious community unable to marry under the new rules. We shall see what happens.
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