Homosexual couples should be able to have civil partnership ceremonies in churches, a group of liberal bishops and academics have said in a letter to The Times.
The bishops are backing a proposed amendment to the Equality Bill which would open the door for churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship, to carry out civil partnership ceremonies if they wished to do so.
But there is widespread concern that a change in the law would be the first step towards forcing it upon all churches in the future.
Last November Ben Summerskill, head of gay lobby group Stonewall, admitted: “Right now, faiths shouldn’t be forced to hold civil partnerships, although in ten or 20 years, that may change.”
The letter, printed in The Times today, included signatures from the Bishop of Salisbury, the Dean of Southwark and four retired bishops.
The group of bishops and academics argued that religious denominations should be allowed to choose whether to register civil partnerships on their premises.
They wrote: “Straight couples have the choice between civil marriage and religious marriage. Gay couples are denied a similar choice.
“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”.
The amendment to the Equality Bill is likely to be tabled in the next few days by Lord Alli, an openly homosexual Labour Peer.
The amendment would remove a safeguard which protects religious premises and religious language from being used for same-sex ceremonies under the Civil Partnership Act 2004.
The Government has yet to decide whether to back the amendment. Ministers are keen to avoid another confrontation with church leaders after losing a recent House of Lords vote on the Equality Bill which preserved religious groups’ employment freedoms.
A spokesman for the Government Equalities Office said: “Some faith organisations are calling for the right to hold civil ceremonies in religious places, so it’s right that we discuss this with them. This is an important issue that needs to be fully explored and we need to carefully consider the implications and hear views from all perspectives”.
A similar amendment calling for civil partnerships in religious premises was debated in the House of Lords on 25 January but it was strongly opposed by the Bishops of Winchester and Chichester.
They argued that if the safeguard was removed it would put unacceptable pressure on the Church of England.
The Bishop of Winchester said 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.”
Last 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.
A spokesman for the Church of England said it has always been clear that “marriage is the lifelong union between a man and a woman, and that is what the liturgy of the C of E Marriage Service is exclusively intended for.”