Religious Groups in UK beg for religious marriage freedom

Timothy Kincaid

February 23rd, 2010

Marriage equality is a freedom of religion issue. Currently, in most US states, the voters have acted under pressure from some religious entities to deny the rights of other religious entities to have their sacraments accorded the same respect and legal standing. Your Congregational Church or Reformed Synagogue may conduct holy vows and say sacred prayers that have been a part of their faith for centuries, but socially conservative Christian denominations have convinced civil government that they, and only they, get to determine what is defined as marriage.

In the United Kingdom, things are both better and worse. Better, because the civil government does allow for civil partnerships that are in most ways identical to marriage. And better because most of the citizenry sees these unions as being weddings.

But the UK is worse in that civil partnerships cannot take place in premises that are either designed for, or are in use mainly for, religious purposes. And they cannot include language that is sacramental and churches are barred from offering blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

That is an unequivocal violation of the religious freedoms of those churches which wish to sanctify, solemnize, and bless the union of their same-sex parishioners. And three have come forward to protest.

In July of last year we informed you that the Quakers (the Society of Friends) in Britain formally requested that the government change the law to allow them to worship in accordance with their faith. And last month Liberal Judaism joined the Quakers and the Unitarians when Baroness Neuberger, president of Liberal Judaism, called for a change in the law to allow civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples to be held in synagogues.

Now these minority religions have received the backing of some powerful allies. A number of leaders in the Church of England have issued a letter in which they call for religious freedom.

Sir, The Civil Partnership Act 2004 prohibits civil partnerships from being registered in any religious premises in Great Britain. Three faith communities — Liberal Judaism, the Quakers, and the Unitarians — have considered this restriction prayerfully and decided in conscience that they wish to register civil partnerships on their premises.

And in their call for religious freedom, these Englishmen turn for moral authority to a most curious document:

To deny people of faith the opportunity of registering the most important promise of their lives in their willing church or synagogue, according to its liturgy, is plainly discriminatory. In the US it would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise . . . of religion.

The wording of the First Amendment is clear to our friends across the pond; a powerful religion cannot usurp the spiritual independence of smaller communities. Let’s hope that American jurists and political leaders can come to find the obvious meaning in our Constitution.


February 23rd, 2010

One important correction: British churches are not banned from performing blessing ceremonies. If the UK government tried that they’d be in breach of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and would be hauled in front of a judge in Strasbourg PDQ.

Timothy Kincaid

February 23rd, 2010


I am having difficulty finding that blessings are, indeed, allowed – outside of Scotland. Not being British myself, I am not as close to the situation as you are, but as best I can tell civil partnerships cannot be blessed, by law.

Is this, perhaps, a situation in which the couple can be blessed but the partnership not?

Can you provide a link to something that indicates that performing blessing ceremonies is allowed? I’m far from infallible but try as I might I just can’t find it.

Fred in the UK

February 24th, 2010

The legal ceremony in which two persons enter into a Civil Partnership but be devoid of religious activity/symbolism. However a religious group and/or its minister can, essentially, perform whatever sort of blessing they see fit in a separate ceremony. They can perform a blessing on the couple or the partnership, in just the same way as they can bless all the haddock in the North Sea, it is of no legal significance or meaning whatsoever.
I am afraid, as far as I am aware, there is no specific law stating that religions have this freedom. The nearest thing , in the law of England & Wales, is the various acts of Parliament that removed laws against heresy and gave toleration for Catholics and non-conformists (non-Anglican Protestants).

The full text of all British Laws can be found at, a very useful resource. The following are all the relevant clauses, that I could find, of the Civil Partnership Act 2004
England & Wales
1(5) No religious service is to be used while the civil partnership registrar is officiating at the signing of a civil partnership document.
6(1) The place at which two people may register as civil partners of each other—
(b)must not be in religious premises, and
6(2) “Religious premises” means premises which—
(a) are used solely or mainly for religious purposes, or
(b) have been so used and have not subsequently been used solely or mainly for other purposes.
93(3) But the place [of registration] must not be in religious premises, that is to say premises which—
(a) are used solely or mainly for religious purposes, or
(b) have been so used and have not subsequently been used solely or mainly for other purposes.
137(5) No religious service is to be used while the registrar is officiating at the signing of a civil partnership schedule.


February 24th, 2010

Timothy, the formatting of the quote from the letter at the end of the post is confusing–it’s not immediately clear where the quotation ends. Can you provide a link to the full text of the letter? Also, to whom (if anyone) was the letter addressed?


February 24th, 2010

I’m in the UK and I attend a church that blesses same sex couples, I do believe that the situation is simply that such ceremonies are not legally binding. Linguistically this is confusing because it makes them “not legal”, but at the same time not “illegal”, as in it is not a crime.

Some of the gay community here seem to be offended that at a Civil Union ceremony any religious activity is forbidden, such as prayers or the mention of any kind of god. The same law does apply to opposite sex couples marrying in civil ceremonies, so this is not discriminatory to same sex couples, it is simply to keep a clear distinction between a legal ceremony and a religious one.


February 24th, 2010

I don’t think RCM is quite correct. The law states that a civil marriage between opposite-sex partners may be performed in a religious building (e.g., church, synagogue, etc.) and that certain religious official are automatically authorized to perform the civil marriage element as part of the religious ceremony. As Fred showed above, same-sex couples who are joining in a civil partnership are explicitly prohibited from doing so in religious premises.

The law may be the same for all couples who are having a civil ceremony at a Register Office (no religious component), but opposite-sex couples have an option (marriage in a religious building, performed by a religious official) that same-sex couples do not.

Fred in the UK

February 24th, 2010


I hope Timothy doesn’t mind me answering your question. The letter was published in The Times (of London) newspaper. In Britain the convention is that such letters are technically addressed to the Editor, although they are, in effect, addressed to the reader. The full text of the letter can be read here.

Timothy (TRiG)

February 24th, 2010

I could be wrong, but I think that any ceremony which takes place in a Registry Office must be devoid of religious content. For example, very few mosques in the UK are registered to perform weddings, so Muslim couples will marry in a non-religious ceremony in a Registry Office, and have a Muslim marriage in a mosque later. Or vice versa. (I heard of a straight couple getting married in a Registry Office who had to fight to be allowed to use a certain piece of music, because it had been used as the setting of a hymn and was therefore “religious” though it was not originally composed as such.)

(In France, all weddings are non-religious and are performed at the Town Hall.)

Civil Partnerships are the same: they’re performed at the Registry Office, and they are non-religious. The only difference is that churches etc. cannot register to perform civil partnerships themselves, the way they can register to perform marriages themselves. Civil Partnerships are available only at registry offices. (Personally, I prefer that, and wish it was the same for marriages, as in France: it helps to keep clear the distinction between the legal and the religious aspects.)


Fred in the UK

February 24th, 2010

Timothy (TRiG),

As far as I am aware, you are correct, non-religious weddings must be completely non-religious.

Civil Partnerships are available only at registry offices.

This is not strictly true, they are also available at other licensed non-religious premises, e.g. hotels, stately homes, etc.

Timothy Kincaid

February 24th, 2010

Thanks, guys. It’s a bit confusing; It is the COE who bans the blessing of same-sex unions. Ironically, the vicars cannot refuse a COE wedding to those who don’t share the faith, but cannot perform one for a same-sex couple who does. Or so it seems from what I read.


February 24th, 2010

Werdna, all I meant was that the ban on religious activity in Civil Union ceremonies is because they are civil ceremonies, not because they are same sex unions.

CoE ministers are also automatically registrars, and can therefore legally marry people in religious ceremonies. A few other religions have special arrangements, so that if a marriage ceremony has taken place, then the minister of that faith can get the marriage registered under the law. Since the reason that Civil Unions are legal in the UK is that we have to allow it under EU law, and EU law does not have authority over our churches, only our human rights, that is how come we are in this position. No one decided to actually make a rule forbidding gay people from religious ceremonies, they just didn’t have any access to marriage at all (because of prejudice throughout history), and then our membership of the EU enabled official gay unions as a human right. Some of our minority religious groups who wish to be allowed to register gay unions, in the same way as they currently can mixed sex couples, are just making their point to the lawmakers, that is all.

We have a rather busy General Election coming up any time now, these small religious groups are probably letting the politicians know what they want.

Maybe that helped Timothy with his confusion.

Rob in the UK

February 24th, 2010

I’d like both to back up and to dispute what RCM says in her/his second post (

Because the law in England and Wales recognises “pure” civil marriages and marriages carried out by certain ministers of religion, and the Civil Partnership Act modelled Civil Partners on the “pure” civil marriage (which doesn’t allow any religious elements), Civil Partnership ceremonies similarly do not allow religious elements as part of the ceremony (though religions are free to conduct stand-alone ceremonies of a purely religious nature).

Where RCM is wrong is in saying “Since the reason that Civil Unions are legal in the UK is that we have to allow it under EU law”. Lots of countries in the EU have neither gay marriage nor Civil Unions, and there’s no proposal that they should. EU legislation does outlaw employment discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, but the rest of the UK legislation on “gay rights” is purely a matter that Parliament has chosen to enact.

Fred in the UK

February 24th, 2010


The unwritten nature of the British Constitution means there is always plenty of scope for confusion.

It is the COE who bans the blessing of same-sex unions.

I am not sure to what you are referring to here. Are you referring to the Church of England’s (CoE) control of its own liturgy and thereby trying to stop individual priests from offering blessings to same-sex couples? If so then you should be aware that a number of priests have quietly performed blessings anyway. Alternatively, are you referring to the position of CofE Bishops within the House of Lords (the Lords Spiritual)? Parliament as a whole made the decision that Civil Partnership ceremonies are to be religion free events, it is true that the Lords Spiritual did not vote against that decision. However only 26 Bishops have seats in the House of Lords (out of a total of 44 diocesan bishops) but that is only a small fraction of the total of 724 members of the House of Lords (as of October 2009). In truth the power of the Lords Spiritual to affect legislation is pretty small.

Ironically, the vicars cannot refuse a COE wedding to those who don’t share the faith, but cannot perform one for a same-sex couple who does. Or so it seems from what I read.

I agree about the irony. I do not believe that vicars are actually compelled to perform weddings on any couple, however as the Established Church it is a strong convention that the CofE will marry all legally eligible couples.

I must agree with Rob in disagreeing with RCM. Civil Partnership / Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with the EU. Within the EU there are members with full same-sex marriage e.g. Spain, members with something nearly same-sex marriage e.g. U.K., members with some recognition, significantly less than marriage e.g. France and members with no recognition of same-sex couples e.g. Italy. RCM is correct that the EU does not have authority over churches, however where RCM states that the EU had control over human rights I wonder whether (s)he is confusing the EU with the Council of Europe which is the controlling body related to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)? Article 12 of the ECHR is the right to marry, however the European Court on Human Rights has found that right only exists for opposite-sex couples, for example, in Cossey v. The United Kingdom


February 24th, 2010

Rob in the UK,

(I am a her, incidentally.)

On the issue of why Civil Unions are legal in the UK, I thought they were legalised in order to avoid constantly getting sued, but I have obviously got it confused with permitting gay people to serve in the armed forces. Sorry everybody.

“The unwritten nature of the British Constitution means there is always plenty of scope for confusion.”

That is true, but I’m not helping much either!


February 24th, 2010

Just in case it helps anybody who is interested in this, here is a simple guide to UK law on the matter:

and here is the government on the subject:

Since we don’t have a written constitution, it is often just assumed that what is not banned is permitted. Hence, you can worship the Giant Tomato, jump over a fence holding someone’s hand and believe it makes you married to them, and as Fred said, bless all the haddock in the north sea, and the law won’t stop you, it just won’t acknowledge you either. However, I have just found this“Human Rights Act

Relevant bit to UK quoted below:

Article 9
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Fred in the UK

March 3rd, 2010

Just to update everyone. The House of Lords voted 95 to 21 for an amendment to the Equalities Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, which would remove the ban on religious Civil Partnerships. I would be surprised if the House of Commons were to vote down this amendment. If the Bill has not been enacted by Parliament before the forthcoming dissolution of Parliament then the entire Bill will be lost, however I think chances are that will not happen.

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