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Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Civil partnerships and the law

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here.

The question of religion and the law marches on. Yet another example concerns impending changes to the Civil Partnership Act 2004. These are intended to enable the registration of civil partnerships to take place on religious premises. More detail of the incoming law and its implications can be found on this post on the UK Human Rights Blog.

There are at least three competing rights: first, the property rights of the owner of any premises on which ceremonies are conducted; second, the right of sexual equality for prospective couples; and third, the right of religious freedom for all. The proprietor may wish to allow or exclude different forms of ceremonies according to his or her beliefs; couples of any description will not expect to be turned away on the ground of their religious beliefs or their sexuality or gender; and religious bodies will wish to sanction their own ceremonies in accordance with their own beliefs and not otherwise.

First one may consider the proprietor. By choosing to offer services to the public he or she must do so within the framework of the law of the land, including equality laws. That was the point which precluded the Christian B&B owners in other well-known proceedings from arguing that they should be permitted to exclude guests on the ground that the B&B was also their home. Equally, if the state licenses an activity such as the provision of marriage ceremony services then it will do so under the applicable equality laws.

Accordingly, the second right would ‘trump’ the first in so far as the proprietor could be said to be dealing with the public. If on the other hand he was holding a private function he could invite whomsoever he pleased and the second right would not be engaged.

Assume, though, that the provision of marriage services is a service to the public, as with opening a restaurant or running a hotel. Then, one meets the objection that a religious organisation wishing to hold only its own ceremonies should be entitled to do just that, and all the more so when it is being held on its own premises too. If the state is to wield the full force of the equality laws, and decide that no discrimination in the provision of marriage services is permissible, then freedom of religion is in for a thin time.

Under the 2004 Act, however, no religious organisation is to be forced to do anything in this regard. Nor is there any prospect of Strasbourg compelling a change: the European Court of Human Rights has refused permission to appeal in a challenge to the ban on gay marriage in Austria ((Schalk and Kopf v Austria (App. No. 30141/04)). All that is in the offing is that religious institutions will no longer be prevented from holding civil partnerships, which on any view is an expansion of everyone’s freedom. What is not on the cards is the ability of any prospective couple to compel an institution to register their partnership, by arguing that a refusal constitutes unlawful discrimination.

Nevertheless, one cannot rule out the prospect of future change. Perhaps a more radical development might be considered, along the lines of France (if anything a more religious country than the UK), to separate church and state completely with regard to marriage. The legal contract of marriage should be signed in a registry office only. Thereafter, at any time(s) and place(s) of their choosing, couples could perform any ceremony they wish at any religious or non religious venue. No legal requirements or restrictions would be involved, since the ceremony would be akin to a private party or religious observance - no-one would suggest the state has any right to superintend the guest list for, or any other aspect of, such occasions. Moreover, the service being offered by a religious institution would not be that of any celebration of any union; it would offer to give its own blessing in accordance with its own tenets. No-one should be entitled to compel a religion to alter its tenets.

There remains a residual point concerning the word “marriage”, which in law is still confined to male and female unions. I leave it to readers to decide if the principles I have set out above require a change. I would however note three things. First, if there is no actual difference in the legal status of marriage and civil partnerships, being unable to use the term in official documents is of no actual consequence. Secondly, it may be that over time opposition to merging the terms will fade in any event, as have so many formerly hotly contested equality issues. Thirdly, any change ought to come from a free vote in the House of Commons, not through the courts.

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