CSCS Submission to the Government Equalities Office Consultation on the Registration of Civil Partnerships in Religious Buildings, June 2011.

The following submission responds to a series of pro-forma questions in the Government’s Consultation documents. These may be seen at:

http://sta.geo.useconnect.co.uk/equality_act_2010/civil_partnership_consultation.aspx

The Centre for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality (CSCS) is a national and international membership organisation, interdenominational in character, and unique in providing opportunities for all Christians, and others in sympathy with its objective, to consider the wide range of theological and pastoral issues in human sexuality. A registered charity, its formal objective is: To advance the Christian religion by promoting objective debate within the Christian churches on matters concerning human sexuality, with a view to developing the spiritual teaching and doctrines of such Christian churches.

CSCS pursues this through promoting academic activity by means of the journal, Theology & Sexuality, and by means of more popular and informal means – newsletters, seminars, conferences, and specific projects such as its Theological Educators’ Project which is exploring how human sexuality issues are dealt with both in the recruitment, ordination or appointment of clergy and lay pastoral workers, including ongoing support, as well as in curriculum development within theological colleges, seminaries and other ministerial training schemes. CSCS works in partnership with a range of other religious and secular groups sharing similar concerns.

In all its responses to this consultation CSCS seeks to identify, if not formally or officially reflect, the various issues which arise in different faith-settings regarding the proposal to allow civil partnerships to take place in religious buildings. We affirm our fundamental support for the amendment to the Equality Act 2010 which allows for such a development. We also wholeheartedly support the permissive nature of this legislation and the right of those who control any particular church premises to decide not to allow their premises to be so used.

CSCS is concerned, that while necessarily focused on religious organisations and institutions owning or exercising authority over the premises for which they are responsible, this consultation insufficiently takes regard of the rights of LGB people of faith and of other beliefs, religious or not, to be able to register their civil partnerships in their places ofworship or meeting. There may be an unforeseen bias in the structure of this document which allows faith-based organisations, particularly, to find ways of avoiding provision for such registrations, without specifically articulating their right not to allow their premises to be used for such purposes.

CSCS questions the legal power of any national religious body, e.g. the General Synod of the Church of England or Archbishop’s Council, the Church in Wales, or the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales, to make a decision at national level to withhold consent to the registration of civil partnerships in buildings belonging to those denominations. The decision should, we believe, remain the prerogative of each individual incumbent, and/or owner of the church building, the parish council or similar congregational body, or body of responsible Trustees.

As an ecumenical organisation, CSCS is not aware of any consultation on this matter having taken place within the wider membership of those churches who form Churches Together in Britain & Ireland, Churches Together in England, or Churches Together in Wales. There is an immense variety of belief and pastoral practice, official and unofficial, operating across Christian churches in England and Wales on the matter of same-sex unions, and official denominational responses to this consultation may not sufficiently register such diversity.

CSCS believes that any central or regional (i.e. Archbishops’ Council, Bishops’ Conference, diocesan, or district) church body that seeks to impose a restrictive policy on individual churches within its territory should be required to demonstrate that it has the legal authority to impose that policy. Moreover, it should be required to demonstrate that it has undertaken appropriate consultation with its membership, including with recognised associations of LGB people of faith.

Current civil partnerships legislation makes it very clear that such registrations are not the same as civil marriage, let alone marriage, religiously understood. In some denominations, the Bishop may have a canonical right and duty to oversee the conduct of the church’s liturgy and sacramental practice. However, since civil partnerships do not fall into this category, and are not therefore recognised as marriage, whether sacramental or not, it is questionable what role religious leadership might legally exercise in this regard.

For example, in the Roman Catholic context, if a religious community of men and women, canonically exempt from the jurisdiction of the local Bishop except in matters pertaining to the conduct of formal liturgy and sacramental practice, decided to offer their premises for the registration of civil partnerships, it must be questioned whether the local Bishop, or Bishops’ Conference could exercise any veto over such a development.

CSCS understands that some faith communities have the practice of celebrating such events in private homes, e.g. some Jewish and Quaker communities. There is also an issue regarding those parts of the wider Christian community who describe themselves as ‘house-churches’ or who meet for regular worship outside the conventional institutional denominational structures.

CSCS believes it would be easier for local authorities to have a standard procedure to follow across all Christian denominations and other faith groups, although we recognise that not all groups, particularly those of non-religious belief, will have relevant structures of decision-making.

The principle of subsidiarity should be employed so that the decision should be made at the local level, i.e. diocesan, district, or congregational level. It should also be recognised that some religious premises such as university or college chapels may fall under other ownership/patronage structures, and so relevant personnel in those contexts would need to be identified.

The consultation document (paras. 3.7,3.8) is unclear whether a faith group, at whatever level, may at any time reverse a previous decision in either direction. An initial decision not to register premises may later be revoked in favour of allowing them, either by a general decision, or by a local change of preference, or vice versa. CSCS assumes that the intention is to allow such changes to occur at any time following the initial decision.

The wording of paragraph 3.15 is unclear as to whether this includes all customary places of worship. There are many premises which are not parish churches, or main congregational buildings, such as university and college chapels, Royal Peculiars, hospital and school chapels, and those belonging to monastic or religious communities. Many of these may not be currently certified by the Registrar General as places of meeting, or for religious worship. Some of these may well wish to register them for civil partnership purposes. Many of the venues used by the Metropolitan Community Church are not in their own ownership, but hired, and some may not necessarily be designated as religious buildings, being community halls, etc.

There are also premises shared by various denominations, where the governance may be under a group of local Trustees, rather than clearly identified denominational structures. An issue could arise if one or some denominations sharing such premises wished to register civil partnerships, and others were not so inclined. Any decision, should not be allowed to constrain the freedom, either way, of other churches sharing the use of the particular building.

The proposal in para. 3.18, that ‘faith groups should have discretion about who may seek to register civil partnerships on their premises’ is unclear. Will this discretion be exercised only at the local level or reserved to central authorities? Some faith groups might wish to limit such a service to members of their own faith. Such discretion also runs the risk of abuse by introducing additional conditions on the couples concerned that would otherwise be illegal under existing equality, or other legislation.

Any discretional policies that a faith group seeks to impose should be required to be a matter of public record, so that they are known in advance by any couples who might consider applying.

As with marriage the essence of making a lifelong commitment is that it is made in public so that all can support the couple in their decision, and their relationship is publicly acknowledged and celebrated. They should have the same access requirements as any approved secular premises where a civil partnership is registered. If the partnership is to be registered on religious premises, the same conditions should apply as in the marriage of opposite sex partners in registered religious premises.

It is unrealistic to propose the removal of all religious symbols, particularly when these are permanent fixtures within the architecture or created environment of the space to be used. Nevertheless, it should be recognised that while some will wish to keep the religious ceremony completely distinct, separate, and following the actual registration of the civil partnership, others may well wish for this to be incorporated into an act of formal worship. The legal act of a civil partnership is the signing of the register and its being witnessed, not the verbal exchange of vows or any other action. Could not either option be recognised without compromising the CIVIL nature of the partnership?

There is no reference to the arrangements for marriages in churches where the religious celebrant is not an ‘authorised person’ and the registrar attends, registering the marriage legally in a procedure held typically in a vestry, rather than the body of the church. This could provide one possible model for civil partnership registrations in religious premises.

CSCS suggests that some areas of legislation from which religious premises are normally exempt, e.g. certain Health & Safety requirements, may be required for civil partnership registration purposes. Registering authorities should be allowed some discretion to allow exemptions in line with this.

There is concern at the level of fees that might be charged. Access to rights under the Equality Act should not be obstructed by imposing high levels of fee-costs on providers of these services who will inevitably have to pass on such costs to service users. There is likely to be a relatively small number of registrations taking place in any one location. Those controlling religious premises aim to provide a pastoral opportunity for couples wishing to register their partnerships, rather than primarily acting from financial motives. Guidance to local authorities should make it clear that this legal change and associated charges are not intended to provide them with a new revenue stream.

Many LGB couples are sensitive about openly approaching a particular denomination or church with a request to register their partnerships in this way, if they think they will be refused. If there is a record of approved religious premises this may well add to the speed of social and religious change on this matter.

Religious bodies should be consulted on any guidance to be provided for registrars (para. 3.32). There should equally be guidance offered to faith communities. Sensitivity to the particular needs of LGB couples and an understanding and acceptance of their sexuality should be an essential part of any training. While training should recognise that the civil partnership registration itself remains CIVIL in character, registrars should be encouraged to reflect the culture and traditions of the couple concerned in formulating the type of ceremony to take place, whether in secular or religious premises. It is unclear if there will be guidance to local authorities as employers of civil registrars. Some registrars may not wish to conduct registrations in religious premises as a matter of conscience, a position which CSCS would not necessarily support.

The consultation focuses predominantly on the needs of faith groups rather than registrars or service users. The Government Equality Office should undertake further work on the wider issues that the implementation of the legislation will raise, so as to avoid conflicts similar to those which have already arisen in the cases of some civil registrars who are people of faith resisting, without real foundation, their duty to register such partnerships.

Para. 3.34 recognises that some individual ministers of religion may wish to become designated civil partnership registrars. It would be helpful if clear guidance was given to local authorities to ensure that a consistent approach to this issue is taken across the whole of England & Wales. There is a risk that. if such designated registrars operated beyond their religious structures, inadvertent religious styles/actions might creep into the conduct of essentially civil ceremonies, thus failing to respect the diversity of beliefs, including non-religious beliefs which exist in a pluralist society.

It is important to recognise that the permissive nature of this legislation protects both faith groups and individual ministers of religion from any risk of litigation as a result of a refusal to allow a civil partnership registration to take place on premises for which they are responsible.

Mainstream Christian denominations in the UK do not keep records of requests for same-sex unions to take place on religious premises, nevertheless there is anecdotal evidence in most denominations of such ceremonies taking place, and these may give an indication of the small number of civil partnership requests on religious premises likely to occur.

Certain churches and other places of worship or meetings for those of shared belief may well develop a reputation for being LGB-friendly, so the number of requests in those places will be more significant. Particular denominations such as Liberal Judaism, the Quakers, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, and the Metropolitan Community Church will also be more popular having already identified their willingness to be involved.

Various denominations/particular churches and religious locations have established fee charges when conducting marriage which presumably would be the same for the conduct of civil partnership ceremonies.

Although primarily a Christian-based organisation we also recognise that other belief systems operate in our society. The consultation document barely recognises this factor. If civil partnerships are, just as marriage, to be seen as important social developments contributing to the common good, then it is important that religious views of marriage and civil partnership are not pitted, even inadvertently, against the views of our humanist and secular fellow-citizens.

There is a risk, as stated previously in our responses, that this document is more tightly geared to the needs and concerns of religious organisations than to those of LGB people who wish to exercise their rights, let aloneother belief organisations who do not operate within these recognised structures, e.g. humanist and secularist groups and individuals, as well as pagans and those of similar beliefs.

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