By proposing to implement this restriction on the Church of England and Wales, the government risks alienating those religious people in favour of equal marriage and provides further ammunition for its opponents, many of whom now claim that legislative developments on the issue have appeared muddled and erratic.
Responding to government proposals on the implementation of marriage equality earlier this week, Conservative MP Richard Drax stated in the House of Commons, ‘I would like to ask the Secretary of State and the government what right have they got, other than arrogance and intolerance, to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?’ It is in an attempt to safeguard religious institutions from legislative intolerance that the government made its announcement this week that the Church of England will be prohibited from performing same-sex marriages should they be introduced.
Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, explained the policy in Parliament, stating, ‘European law already puts religious freedoms beyond doubt, and we will go even further by bringing in an additional “quadruple legal lock”. But it is also a key aspect of religious freedom that those bodies who want to opt in should be able to do so.’ Despite this mention of the opt-in, one of the four parts of the ‘quadruple legal lock’ includes legislation explicitly preventing the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. This threatens to inhibit rather than ensure religious freedom for religious institutions wishing to marry same-sex couples and risks alienating religious individuals in favour of equal marriage.
It would seem that the government has failed to distinguish the many shades of difference of opinion within the Church of England and in Wales on the issue of equal marriage. The assumption that same-sex marriage is necessarily oppressive to religious groups as though they are a monolithic whole can be dispelled by looking at both the Church of England and the Church in Wales, prominent members of which have expressed disappointment in the last week over the government’s announcement.
The Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, as well as a spokesperson for the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, have both criticised the apparent lack of consultation regarding the ‘quadruple legal lock’. But in her address to Parliament, Maria Miller said, ‘Because the Church of England and Wales have explicitly stated that they do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages, the legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples.’
Even if prominent figures within either Church had indeed articulated this ‘explicit’ opposition to equal marriage during the consultation period, Miller’s reasoning for the plans seems too simplistic, not only in light of the variety of views on equal marriage among religious individuals but also given its many proponents within the Conservative Party itself. Just last week, the Telegraph reported on a group organised by key Conservatives including London Mayor Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Michael Gove in support of same-sex marriage within religious institutions. Prime Minister David Cameron has also announced that he favoured equal marriage within the Church.
These complications are making it easier for outright opponents of marriage equality, such as those within the Catholic Church, to more easily undermine the government’s progress on the issue. In response to Miller’s announcement, a statement released by the the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said that the government’s approach ‘can only be described as shambolic’ and went on to complain that, ‘There was no electoral mandate in any manifesto; no mention in the Queen’s speech; no serious or thorough consultation through a Green or White paper, and a constant shifting of policy before even the government response to the consultation was published today.’ Arguably, the response among outright opponents of equal marriage was always going to be negative, but confusion over the legal impact on religious institutions widens the scope for further criticism and doubt over the government’s competence over the issue.
By proposing to implement this restriction on the Church of England and Wales, the government risks alienating those religious people in favour of equal marriage and provides further ammunition for its opponents, many of whom now claim that legislative developments on the issue have appeared muddled and erratic. In an attempt to prevent equal marriage from being forced upon religious institutions, the government now suggests that the Church should be forced to turn same-sex couples away. Religious believers who support equal marriage may now be inclined to ask of their government, ‘What right have they got to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?’
Photo credit: renaissancechambara