A homosexual Labour Peer has accused a senior bishop of misleading the public about the consequences of an amendment to allow civil partnerships in churches.
Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill would allow, but not compel, churches to hold civil partnership ceremonies.
But senior church leaders have warned that it could lead to legal action being taken against individual clergy who refuse to perform the ceremonies.
Last week Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, Bishop of Winchester, warned that the amendment would expose individual clergy to litigation if they refused to perform civil partnerships.
He said: “I believe that it will open, not the Church of England, but individual clergy, to charges of discrimination if they solemnise marriages as they all do, but refuse to host civil partnership signings in their churches. Unless the Government does something explicit about this, I believe that is the next step.”
But Lord Alli attempted to dismiss the Bishop’s concerns, saying he was “saddened by the Bishop of Winchester, who tried to characterise this debate by suggesting that Church of England vicars will be forced to host civil partnerships in their building. Let’s not pretend that this amendment forces anything onto anyone.
He continued: “So let me assure the Bishop of Winchester and all those concerned: unless their religious organisation wants it, or unless Parliament changes the law, there is absolutely no risk of being forced to carry out any ceremony if they do not wish to.”
But legal experts have warned that the matter is not quite so simple.
Neil Addison, a barrister who speaks out on religious liberty cases, said: “As the law now stands churches and synagogues that are registered to conduct marriages could easily find themselves being sued for discrimination if they do not register to conduct civil partnerships.
“Local authorities could also refuse to grant or renew marriage authorisation to churches and synagogues that do not also apply for civil partnership authorisation.
“The Government should add a new amendment to the Equality Bill to make it crystal clear that there is no legal requirement for religious organisations or officials who perform marriages to perform civil partnerships also.”
Civil partnerships have previously been restricted to register offices and secular venues such as hotels and stately homes.