Churches will be allowed, but not compelled, to register homosexual civil partnerships following a late night vote in the Lords yesterday.
However, critics fear the change in the law could open the way for litigation against churches that refuse to register such unions.
And others oppose the move because it makes civil partnerships more like full homosexual ‘marriage’.
At 11pm last night Peers voted by 95 to 21 in favour of an amendment to the Equality Bill moved by Labour Peer Lord Alli.
The Government resisted his amendment in January, saying it was “not a workable solution to this issue”.
However, last night, despite arguing against it on the same grounds, the Government unexpectedly allowed its Peers a free vote on the issue.
The Conservative Party also gave its Peers a free vote, as did the Liberal Democrats.
In a rare break with normal procedure announced only yesterday, the political parties agreed to sit late into the night to allow the Bill to receive its entire Report Stage in one day.
This led to Lord Alli’s amendment being reached late last night – when scores of Peers who would have voted against it were not in the House.
It appears the Equality Bill will now complete all its parliamentary stages before the General Election. The House of Commons will therefore need to approve the amendment.
The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd David James, voted against the amendment. During the debate he warned of “unintended consequences”.
He said: “When we consider changes to the law, we need to be clear about what they are meant to achieve and what, in practice, they do achieve.”
He said there had been “no practical difficulties so far” with the existing legislation.
Lord Waddington, a former Home Secretary, argued: “If this amendment were carried, it would only be a matter of time before it was argued that it was discriminatory for a church incumbent to refuse to allow a civil partnership ceremony to take place when the law allowed it.”
And if legal challenges in the courts failed, Lord Waddington added, “it would not be long before Stonewall was back, demanding repeal of this permissive provision and for a clear duty to be placed on churches to register civil partnerships.
“Is that not the way Stonewall has always worked? And was not Mr Ben Summerskill of Stonewall hinting just that when recently he said that right now faiths should not be forced to hold civil partnerships although in 10 or 20 years’ time things may change.”
Ben Summerskill responded to last night’s vote saying: “We are absolutely delighted with this vote for religious freedom. It will be warmly welcomed by lesbian and gay people of faith.”