The Church of England will not allow civil partnerships for people of the same sex to be registered on their premises despite the passage of a new law in England and Wales that gives the church and other religious premises the opportunity to do so.
Announcing their decision on Thursday, the Church of England made their stance clear through a written statement from the Secretary General, William Fittall.
“No Church of England religious premises may become ‘approved premises’ for the registration of civil partnerships without there having been a formal decision by the General Synod to that effect.”
Previously, civil partnerships could not be registered on religious premises under the Civil Partnership Act of 2004. They could only be registered in a register office or on premises approved by a local registration authority.
In March 2010, however, the Parliament decided during the passage of the Equality Act of 2010 to remove the prohibition on places of worship. On Nov. 8, 2011, the new amendments were laid before the Parliament and approved, resulting in The Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2011. The amendment will come into full force beginning Monday.
Following the decision, the Church of England respectfully declined to participate in registering civil partnerships, affirming that the government gave them the freedom to do so.
“Clear assurances were ... given in Parliament by the then Government that the new possibility for the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises would operate by way of denominational opt-in and that no Church or other religious body would be under any obligation to permit the registration of civil partnerships on its premises.”
The new government also issued a consultation document, reaffirming previous commitments by the previous leaders, which the Archbishops’ Council and the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops both agreed upon.
“The present objective, so far as the Church of England is concerned, is to ensure that the Regulations that the Government intends to make under the amended provisions of the Civil Partnership Act continue to provide unfettered freedom for each religious tradition to resolve these matters in accordance with its own convictions and its own internal procedures of governance. For most Christian denominations as well as other faith groups the issues involved are set to remain sensitive and, to varying degrees, contested.”
The Legal Office of the Church House revealed that their decision was not discriminating in a way which was unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 because they were “not concerned” with the service of civil partnership registrations.
“A key relevant provision is section 29 of the Equality Act which makes it unlawful for ‘a person concerned with the provisions of a service to the public or a section of the public’ to discriminate on various grounds, including sexual orientation, ‘against a person requiring the service by not providing the person with the service.’”
“A Church which provides couples with the opportunity to marry (but not to register civil partnerships) is ‘concerned with’ the provision of marriage only; it is simply not ‘concerned’ with the provision of faculties to register civil partnerships,” the Legal Office noted. “That would be a different ‘service,’ marriage and civil partnership being legally different concepts.”
The church continued to explain that the nondiscrimination requirement imposed by the Equality Act on service-providers did not include a requirement to undertake the provision of other services, in this case civil partnership registrations, that a service-provider was not already concerned with providing just because the services that it currently offered were of such a nature that they tended to benefit only persons of a particular age, sex, sexual orientation, etc.
“For example,” the church clarified, “a gentlemen’s outfitter is not required to supply women’s clothes. A children’s book shop is not required to stock books that are intended for adults. And a Church that provides a facility to marry is not required to provide a facility to same-sex couples for registering civil partnerships.”
If the Parliament were to legislate for same sex marriage, however, which the Prime Minister recently suggested, the church would reassess the issue.
Additionally, the Legal Office commented that the church was not violating the public sector equality duty contained in the Equality Act as well because the church was not exercising public functions in making their decision to deny civil partnership registrations.
“The Equality Act contains various exceptions for religious organizations,” the Church House concluded.
“...It is not considered that a Church which solemnized marriages but did not wish to provide facilities for the registration of civil partnerships would need to rely on any of these since it would not be doing anything that even prima facie amounted to unlawful discrimination.”
Taking all precautions necessary as the new law comes into effect on Monday, the Church of England carefully prepares for the aftermath of their decision.