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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.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. This one almost brings out the moral realist in me 🙂
    I would be less tentative than you: I find it outrageous that the law of a supposedly liberal demacracy bans religious elements in civil partnerships/marriages. This clearly limits choice, and the arguments for doing so don't seem to be remotely convincing.

    But I'm also curious: does anyone know why this ban *does* exist (as opposed to whether it *should* exist)?

  2. The question would not arise if Britain had the courage to separate the State completely from all religion. A civil wedding or partnership would be just that – and it would take place obligatorily in non-religious locations.

    If couples would like a Christian, Muslim, Scientological or Druid ceremony, then they could have that also, but it would have no civil or legal status.

    Why should we let religions stand in for civil society ?

  3. I certainly agree that the Church of England should be disestablished. (While we're at it we could replace the monarchy replaced by a president playing a similar largely figure-head role, as it does in countries like Germany, Italy and Greece.)

    I'm less comfortable with creating such a thick wall as Anthony seems to be suggesting (unless I've misunderstood) between civil and religious ceremonies. What if I want a church wedding, coupled with a small civil ceremony in the church itself ("signing of the register") to give it the necessary legal status? Or what if I want a civil ceremony in a town hall, but include some hymns or readings from scripture? Is there really a good reason to ban or discourage such practices?

  4. Just to reassure you, no you didn't misunderstand, Peter. I propose a 100% hermetic wall between state and church. If you want society to recognise your marriage, you marry according to society's rules at the town hall; if you want also that it be recognised by your religion, you're free to do so, but it is a wholly separate affair.
    The "good reason" that I would advance is simply that religious belief is a personal choice and should not become intertwined with general societal relations, which are neither dependent on nor consequent of religious belief.

    I'm not saying that it is the most serious social question of the moment, either; I won't take the issue to the streets and demonstrate tomorrow.
    But in a rational society we should separate the two, and incidentally we would avoid the type of debate illustrated by Michelle in her post. (And thus exemplify a form of Occam's razor put into practice)

  5. Interesting perspective. I certainly agree that religious belief is a personal choice; on the other hand it also generally has an effect on our "societal relations". Somehow I think there is a "should" missing in your sentence: perhaps "general societal relations" *should* be neither dependent on nor consequent of religious belief; in practice they often are (and from a hostorical perspective most definitely are). I guess the question – for those of us who don't profess religious beliefs, and perhaps indeed see them as an undesirable form of superstition – is how far the state should go in accommodating those who take a different view. But I agree your proposal, being both consistent and defensible, would avoid this type of issue.

  6. What is the role of the religious organization that owns the church? I have no problem with mixing one sort of magic with another in civil ceremonies (so long as it does not involve cruelty to animals), but I think it unreasonable to compel or press a religious organization to allow its buildings to provide the stage for marriages of which the religious organization does not approve. This is not only a problem with homosexual marriage; it could also allow couples of differing religious memberships to use a church to celebrate a marriage that the church's owner does not accept — either because of doctrine or because of the discretion of the cleric in charge of the building.

  7. Thank you very much for your comments.
    Dennis, my post was specifically attacking the ban on religious elements in civil partnership ceremonies, and discussing a law which will allow religious buildings to be used for such ceremonies, if the proprietor of the building does not object. Having said that, I think an argument could be made in this country that it would be reasonable for pressure to be exerted on the Church of England to perform civil partnership ceremonies. Along with the benefits of being the state religion might come responsibilities regarding performing certain ceremonies which those in the state deem allowable and important to them. The church has been very successful in persuading many minimally (if at all) religious people that getting married in church, with Bible readings and hymns, is culturally important regardless of whether they go to church at any other time. Perhaps in exchange for this they should be slightly broader in their acceptance of certain unions than they might otherwise be. I think this ties in to Anthony’s point. If all official marriage ceremonies were entirely divorced from religion, then churches would be entitled to see themselves as separated from the state and catering only to devote members of their own congregation. However, the way that the two are currently intertwined provides some justification for thinking of marriage in a C of E church as a service which is provided to people on the basis of their living in the country of which that is the official religion. As such, perhaps it should be strongly encouraged to be more even handed in its provision of the service, in line with, for example, the ruling that a B&B was not allowed to refuse gay couples double rooms (

  8. Whilst the Church of England is the official state religion of the country this is more in respect of past historic connections. The divide between religion and state, in the UK and other countries, is dependent on people's interpretation of 'religion'. Any religion deemed official risks losing its identity. Rather than being solely influenced from within (i.e. the church members) there is the very potential for external influences contrary to the religious beliefs/doctrines. Cultural and societal changes are inevitable, however these should be instigated from within the religion itself and not imposed by a third party.
    One of the reasons why Christianity is in apparent decline within the UK is that because it is deemed the state religion people used to class themselves as Christian by default. In recent times there has become a more distinct separation between church and state, and thus people are more willing not to class themselves as Christian. Realisation that the state and church are not inseparable leads to the conclusion that civil and religious ceremonies are inherently different. That is why, for example, religious ceremonies are not legally binding in and of themselves. It just so happens that most churches are licenced to hold the ceremony and the register can be signed there and then. People should thus be allowed to have whatever they like in their own wedding/partnership ceremony – it is not up to the religions or even state to determine or govern this (insofar as the basic legal duties are still performed), though if people have specific requests and also want their ceremony performed in specific buildings (religious or not) then they should not expect both to be compatible and acceptable. Freedom in society should not mean individuals getting their own away if this restricts the freedom of others.

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