Churches may be obliged to perform same-sex weddings, suggest senior church leaders
Leaders in the Church of England have suggested that, should marriage be redefined, churches may be forced to marry same-sex couples under equality laws, despite any statutory exemptions for religious bodies such as those promised by the Government.
In a letter to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu argued that the Government’s proposals to extend marriage to same-sex couples “were not legally sound” and would create “open season” in the courts for legal challenges.
The leaders warned that, once same-sex marriage is legalised, homosexual couples will be entitled to exactly the same rights as heterosexual married couples under Human Rights legislation.
This means that the Government’s policy to restrict same-sex weddings to civil premises is likely to be successfully challenged in court.
The Church of England’s response to the Government’s same-sex marriage consultation was released today (12 June) and states:
“If the proposal to redefine marriage were to be implemented, it must be very doubtful whether limiting same-sex couples to non-religious forms and ceremonies could withstand a challenge under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Once same-sex marriages are made available on religious premises, churches that refuse to carry out such weddings are likely to be sued successfully in domestic and European courts, despite the Government’s assurances that same-sex marriages will not undermine religious freedom in any way.
The letter from the Archbishop’s said: “Assurances that the freedom of the churches and other religious organisations would be safeguarded are of limited value given that once the law was changed the key decisions would be for domestic and European courts.”
Church and State
Senior Church of England figures also stated that the ties between church and state would come under threat should same-sex marriage be introduced.
This is because canon law, which forms a part of English legislation, and only permits marriage between a man and a woman, would be contrary to any future provisions of national legislation that extended marriage to same-sex couples.
The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, said: “If the civil law of the state redefines [marriage] you have got a situation in which civil law and canon law are at odds.
"That would need to be resolved – presumably in due course by changing the law of the Church because there are statutory provisions which provide that the canon law of the state cannot be contradictory to the statutes of the realm.”
Another senior figure said: “The canons of the Church of England are part of the law of England and have been continuously since the reformation of Henry VIII.”
“Is it possible to have the law of the Church of England saying something different to the law of England? The question is how long we can sustain that. It raises the sort of problems that no one has had to address before.”
He added: “I do believe that the European Court could make it impossible for Church of England to go on having the role that it has got at the moment in relation to conducting marriage on behalf of the state.”
Church leaders warned further that changing the historic definition of marriage as between a man and a woman within a matter of months was “unwise” and “ill considered”.
The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev Steven Croft, said:
“Whilst this is being presented as a kind of minor extension to what marriage means, actually, from the point of view of the Church and of society, it is a really, really fundamental change to an institution which has been at the core of our society for hundreds of years and which for the Church is not a matter of social convention but of Christian doctrine and teaching.”
“I think the difficulty we have here is the substitution of equality for uniformity, that is to say that there can be no distinction at all between men and women.”
Andrea Williams, CEO of Christian Concern, said:
“Marriage must not be redefined. The European Court is likely to insist that both homosexual and heterosexual married couples are treated in exactly the same way.
“Therefore, should same-sex marriage be legalised, it is almost inevitable that, further down the line churches will be forced to host same-sex weddings. This would signal the effective end of religious freedom in the United Kingdom.”