LONDON – More than 6,000 Christians have signed a petition calling on the government to drop a controversial clause in the Equality Bill that allows churches to conduct civil partnership ceremonies in places of worship.
It specifically calls on the government to "listen to the large proportion of the electorate who perceive the government's acceptance of this amendment as a further attempt to progress so-called 'equality' today, while ultimately compromising tomorrow's religious 'freedom.'"
The petition will be handed to Secretary of State Harriet Harman by Christian Concern For Our Nation.
The House of Lords voted in favor of Lord Alli's amendment in a late night sitting earlier in the month. The move has alarmed Christian leaders, who fear churches could be sued if they refuse to conduct civil partnership ceremonies on their premises.
They feel the government has reneged on its promise to give the issue "proper and careful consideration."
Andrea Minichiello Williams, barrister and Director of CCFON said Lord Alli's amendment to the Equality Bill had dramatically changed the law on civil partnerships.
"Although it has been presented as an issue of religious freedom, the amendment has the potential to further erode religious liberty in the future," she said.
"The thousands of individuals who have signed the petition asking the government to reject the amendment believe that if it became law, what has been called permissive legislation would ultimately lead to coercing religious believers to act against their conscience."
The Rev. Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of U.K.-based Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, argues that the amendment will not force religious organizations to perform same-sex ceremonies.
"The law does not force ministers and other religious leaders to marry opposite-sex couples now, and won't force them to conduct civil partnerships for same-sex couples," she said, according to the Episcopal News Service. "The change to the law will however enable those organizations who wish to offer this to be able to do so."
But Williams fears the amendment will have the same effect as the Civil Partnership Act, introduced in 2004, which was also proposed as "permissive legislation" but has since forced registrars to act against their conscience or face dismissal.
"How long will it be before church ministers are threatened with legal proceedings if they perform marriages between a man and a woman, but not civil partnerships?" she said.
The Evangelical Alliance UK has also come out in opposition to any change to the law, saying it would leave churches confused about what they were allowed to do.
The organization fears churches may end up in the same situation as Catholic adoption agencies, which have been forced to close down or drop their Christian ethos because of their refusal to place children with same-sex couples.
Also, Church Society, which exists to uphold biblical teaching, said the amendment would create an even more difficult environment for Christians and predicted that the "anti-Christian" nature of recent legislation would affect their vote in the forthcoming general election.
The group said in a statement, "Christians will not want to vote for political parties who are antagonistic to their beliefs and who are acting to prevent Christians living in accordance with their faith."