Quest Bulletin reported in the Spring 2011 issue that the coalition Government at Westminster had launched a consultation on civil partnerships on religious premises. In effect, following the introduction of the Equality Act 2010, the Government seeks to remove the ban on civil partnerships being held on religious premises. The consultation document issued in March 2011 made it clear that faith groups would be given the freedom to act as they wish in relation to registering civil partnerships on their premises and thus enable religious same-sex couples to formalise their relationship in a place of worship.
The then Chair, Peter Rodgers, asked Guy Torrance to draft a response on behalf of Quest. The summary of our response stated that the scope of the consultation and its proposals were too narrow in that faith groups might be protected from legal challenge in choosing not to allow their buildings to be used for civil partnerships but that government might itself be open to such challenge. The Quest response made clear its concern that Government may be seen to be legitimising discrimination by faith groups whilst those groups are fulfilling state functions (whether as to premises or persons). Currently the Catholic Church fulfils a state function when it registers marriages in its churches.
Quest’s submission acknowledges that faith groups who welcome LGBT worshippers as the greater or smaller part of their membership will be allowed to go a stage further towards equality in registering civil partnerships in their buildings. Quest wishes those faith groups well and looks forward to faith groups having and sharing their own Civil Partnership Registrars.
The response calls for a complete reform and coherence in legislative provision for all religious partnership formation on an equal basis leading to buildings simply being deemed suitable for Partnership Formation, irrespective of the gender of the parties, whether marriage or Civil Partnership. It suggests that where faith groups, such as the Catholic Church, do not wish to conduct partnership formations (either weddings or civil partnerships) on an equal basis, they should no longer exercise civil (i.e. state) functions. This would mean a complete separation of the civil element in space and time from the faith based celebration of the event, akin to the system in France.
In November the Government Equalities Office published a summary of the responses it had received including draft regulations to implement the proposals consulted on. These do not include the stipulation that those faith groups who do not wish to register civil partnerships should no longer be allowed to register marriages in the context of religious ceremonies. The Government is confident that there is protection for faith groups from the risk of successful legal challenge, but the risk remains that the Government itself could be open to legal challenge on the grounds of legitimising inequality.
Subject to the will of Parliament, it is expected that the regulations necessary to implement section 202 of the Equality Act 2010 will provide the framework to allow for civil partnerships to be registered on religious premises from early 2012.