I’m disappointed to see that a same-sex couple in Essex say that they plan to sue the government over the ban on same-sex weddings taking place within the Church of England.
My position may surprise some people, given my enthusiastic support for marriage equality. However, the government’s proposals for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage have not even passed the Commons yet, let alone the Lords. I suggest we should concentrate on trying to change the proposals before they reach the statute book. Suing the government at this stage implies that the bill has already become law.
I strongly believe that same-sex couples should have the same rights as mixed-sex couples. I also believe that no-one should be obliged to participate in or host an act of worship in which they do not believe. Therefore, I do not want to see any faith group forced to carry out same-sex marriages against their will.
The government’s proposals go further than this. They give the Church of England a special status and make it harder for pro-equality Anglicans to achieve change within their own denomination. Rather than have a system in which churches can “opt in”, I would rather they were able to “opt out”.
Certain anti-equality groups have been claiming for a long time that churches will be forced to host same-sex marriages against their will. For a long time, I have been asking them to name any group that believes this. They have been unable to do so. They have claimed that campaigners are planning legal actions – but not named any. It is significant that this action has been brought not by a campaign group but by an individual couple (who, incidentally, are wealthy enough to embark on legal action).
While I do not think the couple have chosen the right course, I can understand their anger. Also, I think it is vital to recognise that they are not demanding that a church should be forced to host a same-sex wedding against its will. They want to be married by a pro-equality priest in the church in which their children were baptised. They are practising Anglicans.
I want to see the Church of England treated the same in law as other religious groups. This is difficult when several Anglican leaders want the privileges of establishment (e.g. bishops in the Lords) without the obligations (e.g. conforming to equality laws). Disestablishment would make this whole issue a lot easier. However, even with establishment remaining, it should be possible for the law to allow each faith group, including the CofE, to make its own decision. I wish the CofE would allow individual congregations and clergy the freedom to follow their consciences. If they won’t, I recognise their right not to host marriages on an equal basis, however abhorrent I find this position.
The government’s proposals, by giving special status to the Church of England, are discriminatory. Their bill might be passed as it is; it might be improved by amendments; it might not pass at all. There are several good reasons to challenge the government’s proposals. But let’s do that on the streets, in the media and in Parliament. Let’s not imply we’ve lost already by going straight to the courts.