A Government minister says she is “not unsympathetic” to the idea of allowing gay civil partnerships to be held in some churches.
Baroness Thornton was responding to homosexual peer Lord Alli’s attempt to change the law and allow same-sex civil partnerships to take place in religious buildings.
Lord Alli said the change would only be for churches which wanted to allow civil partnerships but concerns have been raised that this is the first step in a bid to force all churches to host the unions.
At present the law is clear that civil partnerships cannot take place in buildings reserved for religious purposes.
The Bishop of Winchester warned that any change to the law could force churches to compromise on the issue.
He said: “Shortly down the line, were this amendment to be passed- I understand that Stonewall has made this intention entirely clear- is the likelihood of a steady and continuing pressure on, if not a forcing of, the churches, the Church of England among them, to compromise on our convictions that marriage has a character that is distinct from that of a civil partnership.
“Churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, that distinction.”
Baroness Thornton acknowledged any change in the law “would risk undermining the parity that has been carefully established between civil partnership and civil marriage”.
But, she continued, that would mean any change to the law could be “brought only after proper and careful consideration of these issues, which is why it is important that we listen, discuss and consider views on this important issue, particularly the views of those churches and organisations that want to conduct same-sex unions on a voluntary basis so that same-sex couples can have the opportunity to formalise their relationships in a religious setting”.
The Baroness also pointed out that: “The Government have been at the forefront of introducing measures to protect the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.”
The change in the law was proposed in an amendment to the Equality Bill. Lord Alli withdrew his amendment at the end of the debate.
In November gay lobby group Stonewall said it was pushing for an amendment to the Bill which it hoped would, in the future, force churches to host gay civil partnership services.
Ben Summerskill, head of Stonewall, said at the time: “Right now, faiths shouldn’t be forced to hold civil partnerships, although in ten or 20 years, that may change.”
Mr Summerskill said his organisation was working with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and the Metropolitan Community Church to change the law.
In July a homosexual Government minister called on the Church of England to allow same-sex civil partnerships to be celebrated in churches.
Chris Bryant, a junior Foreign Office minister, said churches should be “much more open” to treating civil partnerships like marriage.
But in response the Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali, who at the time was Bishop of Rochester, said: “Of course all citizens must have equal rights without discrimination. But marriage is the basis of the family, and the stability of the family is grounded in the sameness in difference between men and women.”