Equal marriage: We need campaigns, not court cases

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. 

3 responses to “Equal marriage: We need campaigns, not court cases

  1. As regards the CofE, I’m a little more hard-line than I am towards most churches. All the time they’re a de facto part of government, via the Lords Spiritual, they’re simply not the same as any other church. If they want to remain part of government, they should be forced, if they don’t do so voluntarily, to comply with the same anti-discrimination laws which all other government departments (not to mention the rest of us) have to comply with.

  2. As I have said previously Symon, the problem is that if a Church accepts doctrinally that Gay Marriage is possible, any church in that denomination which refuses to marry gays will be liable to be sued under the Equality Act.

    Secondly, the C of E has to be treated differently because as you have said, it is the establised church. There is a principle that any two people can marry in the Church of England, regardless of their faith. Ministry of Truth has an excellent blog post on this:

    “Unlike other churches and religious organisations, the Church of England, as the established church, is legally obliged to conduct marriage ceremonies for anyone who asks subject only to the rules of canon law and secular provision of the Marriage Act 1949 (and subsequent amendments) irrespective of the actual religious beliefs of the parties who wish to marry. As long as both parties are content to be married under the rites of the Church of England, legally able to marry and are willing to comply with the Churches administrative requirements, e.g. the posting of banns, etc. then, save for an explicit legal exemption relating to divorcees whose former spouse in still alive, the Church has a legal duty to perform the ceremony.

    This being the case, the government cannot merely leave the option open without creating a constitutional problem by giving rise to a potential conflict between statute and canon law, one that can only be resolved in one of two ways given that the Church remains, at least for the time being, opposed to carrying out same-sex marriages; the government must either legislate for the Church of England in line with current canon law, in which case statute law must specify that it remains unlawful for ministers of the Church of England to marry same-sex couples, or it must remove from law the Church’s legal duty to perform marriages for any heterosexual couple who asks to be married under the rites of the Church.

    As this second option would entail the Church taking a very clear step on the road to disestablishment, the government have chosen to take the first option and maintain a consistent position between statute and canon law by retaining a ban of same-sex marriages within the Church of England in statute law.

    In practical terms, all this actually means is that if and when the Church of England choose to recognise same-sex marriage in canon law, a new piece of primary legislation will be required not only to remove this lock from statute but to incorporate the Church’s agreed changes in canon law into statute. While it remains an established church, the Church of England can no more opt-in to conducting same-sex marriages than it can opt-out without specific provision being included in statute. As an established church, it is not like other religious organisations and cannot be dealt with, in statute law in the same manner as other religious organisations when it comes to matter that fall specifically under canon law.”


    You may not like it because it doesn’t allow Gay Marriage to be accepted within the CofE organically, but the only alternative is to force the state church to accept Gay Marriage, which you oppose but people like Daz don’t.

    • A clarification:

      My preferred solution wouldn’t be to force the CofE to do anything. I’d really much rather have no state church at all or, failing that, at least remove its voice in government.

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