Civil Partnership, Religion and the BNP
The government is making plans to lift the ban on gay partnership ceremonies in religious buildings. Among the first to apply to perform such ceremonies are expected to be Quakers, and Liberal Jews. However, it is apparently “not clear whether the proposals will suggest that civil ceremonies in religious surroundings could incorporate elements such as hymns or Bible readings”. What justification could there be for preventing the incorporation of such elements?
Civil partnerships were originally brought in as the equivalent of civil marriages, with the same rights and duties. It therefore seems natural that civil partnership ceremonies have the same restrictions as civil wedding ceremonies, which are not allowed to contain any religious elements. Hence the legitimacy of the restriction on religious elements in civil partnership ceremonies rests in part on the reasons for the restriction on civil marriages.
One such reason might be concern that some registrars would exert pressure on couples to include religious elements which the couple did not want. It seems more likely that such concern was legitimate in the past, than that it is now. We trust other authority figures not to abuse their position in this way. For example, we do not think that schools should be prohibited from offering Religious Studies because some teachers might try to pressure children into studying it. A second possible reason for the restriction on civil marriages is the distancing of government from religion. Including religious elements in government services might be seen as the government advocating religion. However, given that it would not be the registrars who were reading from the religious texts and that it would not be just one religion which was allowed, there still seems to be a suitable separation of the government from religion. Less generously, it might be postulated that the restriction is in place because civil services provide a cheap alternative to getting married in a religious building, and hence that religions don’t want their materials used for civil services, because it would lead to greater numbers of people taking that alternative.
For heterosexual couples, the ban on using religious elements in a civil wedding ceremony may seem to be relatively unimportant, since they could choose to have a religious ceremony instead if they prefer. If the ban does not have an adverse effect on many people, it does not matter that the arguments in its favour seem relatively weak. However, in the case of civil partnerships, this ban has made a great difference, since gay couples have not been allowed to have religious partnership ceremonies. Even under current plans which may allow ceremonies to be held in Meeting Houses and Synagogues, there might be a ban on hymns and Bible readings. Therefore, for the restriction to be justified there must be a stronger reason in favour of it than those found to support the restriction on civil marriages.
There does seem to be an additional possible reason for the restriction in the case of civil partnerships. Taking the case of Christianity as an example, the reason is that Christians might feel that if Bible readings and hymns were used in civil partnerships, that would imply that the Church sanctioned the union, when it did not. However, such a justification is not plausible. There are many different Christian denominations, believing many different doctrines, including ones which are in direct conflict. Yet there is no question of restricting Bible readings to only some of them. A revealing example of society’s toleration for the use of Bible passages (at least in the eyes of the law) is on BNP election material. Most members of the church want to distance themselves as far as possible from the BNP, as is shown by the General Synod banning C of E clergy from being members of the party. Yet members of the BNP are still within their rights to quote the Bible on their election material. This seems in keeping with our liberal society, which allows people the freedom to interpret and celebrate religion in their own way. If this extends to BNP election materials, surely it should extend to civil partnerships? Therefore, there do not seem to be reasons against allowing religious elements in civil partnership ceremonies which are strong enough to outweigh the infringement of couples’ right to religious freedom.