British law maker withdraws attempt to remove clergy exemption on same-sex marriages

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Lord Faulkner of Worcester

Three members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK Parliament, have tabled an amendment to a Bill on marriages and civil partnerships that would have removed the exemption for members of the clergy to solemnise the marriage of a same sex couple. But the amendment was withdrawn by the main proposer, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, after the Government said it could not support the proposal.

The amendment was tabled by three opposition Labour Party peers: Richard Faulkner, Raymond Collins, and Michael Cashman. If introduced into law, it would require the Secretary of State to make regulations within six months to remove the exemption for clergy.

The Act of Parliament that legalised same-sex marriages in England and Wales contains “opt-in” protections for religious groups. Clergy may not solemnise same-sex marriages unless their denomination’s governing body has formally opted in. The law also protects religious groups who do not conduct same sex marriages from claims under anti-discrimination law. The Act contains specific additional exemptions for the two Anglican Churches, the Church of England and the Church in Wales, which prevents them from opting in without a change in the law.

The Church of England’s General Synod has the legal authority to make such a change in the law. The Act contains provisions for the Lord Chancellor to change the law by secondary legislation, if the Church in Wales’ Governing Body decided to opt in to same sex marriages.

Explaining his reasons for introducing the amendment, Lord Faulkner told the House of Lords today (Friday) that the exemption “continued the ban on same sex couples marrying in Church of England churches.”

He said that he wanted to give the opportunity to the churches “to say at some point in the future that because the [law permitting same-sex marriage] had been an unqualified success, and is already giving the opportunity to thousands of same-sex couples to enjoy the opportunity to be married and to live together, I hope it will be possible for the Church of England to follow the lead set by the Anglican Churches in Scotland, the United States, Canada, and other countries to permit same sex couples to marry in Church.”

Responding to the amendment, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, a member of the House of Lords, said that the Church of England seeks to welcome all people – including those in civil partnerships and same sex marriages. “There are, of course, questions about how this welcome can be expressed”, he said.

He told Peers that he regretted the amendment for introducing “a discordant note” into a Bill that was, otherwise, not contentious. He said that the law which introduced same sex marriages to England and Wales “seeks to strike a balance between the right of individuals to marry a person of the same sex; and the rights of churches, other religious bodies and their ministers, to act in a way which is consistent with their religious beliefs.

“Nobody is prevented from entering into a marriage with a person of the same sex; but also not religious body or person or minister of religion is compelled to solemnise such a marriage.”

Opposing the amendment, the Conservative Government minister Susan Williams – Baroness Williams of Trafford – stressed that the law on same sex marriage was an “opt-in” system. “Same sex marriages can only be performed on religious premises or under religious rites when the governing religious body has expressly consented”, she said. “There is no requirement to give such consent. We have always been clear that no religious body should be forced to marry same sex couples or to host civil partnerships.”

Lord Faulkner withdrew his amendment without a vote, but said that he may bring it back at a later stage of the Bill’s progress through the House of Lords.