Religious Freedom and Same-Sex ‘Weddings’

Posted on February 17, 2011


Several media outlets over the weekend reported that the British Government is poised to allow civil partnership ceremonies to be held in places of worship and to include religious elements. Under current legislation, ceremonies are forbidden to include religious readings, music, or symbols. A spokesman for the Home Office said that ‘the government is currently considering what the next stage should be for civil partnerships, including how some religious organisations can allow same-sex couples to register their relationship in a religious setting if they wish to do so’.

The vast majority of religious groups who oppose such a move are being reassured that people will not be forced to act against their beliefs. There is, however, a sinister air to such a claim. Why the need to emphasise the fact that religious groups will not be forced to act against their beliefs if the possibility that they might be was not something already being suggested, however distant it may be on the horizon?

It is not necessary to question the honesty of those who make such assertions, but recent history shows that events have a habit of running away with themselves, so that what is out of the question at one point very quickly becomes a possibility, and then obligatory. Readers may recall the case of Section 28, the now defunct law banning the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities or ‘the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. When the law was repealed in 2003, the Government was at pains to reassure people that it was not giving a green-light to promotion of homosexuality in schools. The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, even published new guidelines requiring schools to promote heterosexual marriage which resulted in him being labelled ‘reactionary’ by some. Yet, within less than eighteen months, the government was actively encouraging schools to sign up to schemes run by homosexual lobbying groups such as ‘Gay History Month’, which teaches children the absurd claim that notable Britons such as William Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale, and even Winston Churchill, were homosexual. In 2007 a pilot scheme was launched to teach children as young as four about homosexual relationships – though it was just such schemes run by local councils which provided the occasion for the original introduction of Section 28 in the 1980s. So much for the Government’s reassurances in that instance.

This is but one example, and as such there is a hollow ring to the assertion that religious groups will not be forced to host or participate in same-sex weddings, should these be introduced. It is not difficult to imagine that in a few years time, a same-sex couple may feel indignant that the only option they have for a religious ceremony is, for example, the local Quaker meeting house. Why, they will ask, should they be prevented from having a ceremony in their picturesque medieval parish church just because the local Vicar is a bigoted homophobe? We reported here recently on the case of Christian hoteliers in Cornwall who were ordered to pay compensation to a same-sex couple after refusing to accommodate them in a double-room at their Bed & Breakfast. From the point of view of a practically secular State, it is very difficult to see what the difference is between religious hoteliers who refuse to offer double-bedded accommodation to homosexuals in their own hotel, and religious ministers who refuse to officiate at same-sex ‘weddings’ in their own places of worship. The State has – after all – already come down hard on registrars who refuse to officiate at civil ceremonies for homosexuals.

We commented here last week on David Cameron’s Munich speech in which he stated: ‘I believe a genuinely liberal country… believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship… equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality’. It has been pointed out by commentators as far afield as Sweden that ‘freedom of worship’ and ‘freedom of religion’ are not the same thing, and that the Prime Minister seems perhaps to be endorsing a quite restrictive view of the rights of religious persons to manifest their beliefs in a public setting. ‘Freedom of worship’ relegates religious practices and beliefs to homes and places of worship, whilst ‘freedom of religion’ includes the right – within just limits – to manifest those beliefs in civil society, and to make a living in accord with them.

If the Prime Minister genuinely believes that sexual preference is analogous to ethnicity, it is unlikely that the current assurances will prove to be anything more than an intermediate stage between the current status quo, and a possible future scenario in which religious leaders who object to same-sex relationships – Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others – may face penal sanctions for refusing to officiate at ‘gay weddings’. It is inconceivable that the Government would allow a racist Anglican clergyman to refuse to marry a mixed-race couple, and if present trends continue, it is just as inconceivable that the current reassurances being given to religious groups will be worth anything more than the paper upon which they will be written.

(Photo of wedding-cake topper: © Stefano Bolognini; Photo of Parish church of St. Levan, Nr. Porthcurno, Cornwall: © Jim Champion)