By Malissa Rogers
The government of England has announced that the Church of England and the Church of Wales will no longer perform same-sex marriages and will be banned by law from doing so, if the plans are put into effect in 2015.
“I am absolutely clear that no religious organization will ever be forced to conduct marriages for same-sex couples, and I would not bring in a bill which would allow that,” Culture Secretary Maria Miller said according to the BBC.
The plan to ban churches from performing marriages has not stopped the British from granting gay couples the right to marry. The British government announced Tuesday that they will sponsor a bill that will allow same-sex couples to marry and is likely to be introduced next month.
“We should not stop people from getting married and getting that recognition from the state on grounds of gender or sexuality,” Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary for Labour, said. “And we should not here in Parliament say that some loving relationships have greater value than others.”
However, the bill will include clauses that “explicitly ban” churches from performing the ceremonies to protect religious freedom within the country. The legislation will include a “quadruple lock” of safeguards to ensure that no religious group will have to go against their beliefs and be forced to wed same-sex couples.
“For some, this is contentious, a radical reform or, indeed, a reform too far,” said Maria Miller, the Conservative Party government minister who unveiled the plan in Parliament. “But the historical facts show that, over the generations, marriage has had a long history of evolution. … For me, extending marriage to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, this vital institution.”
Although many lawmakers have spoken out against gay marriage, polls indicate that a majority of Britons support the idea. According to the BBC, many believe the legislation will pass. Religious groups that support marriage equality include the Quakers and some liberal Jewish synagogues.
The proposal is unusual for Britain because the government tends to lean towards the right of the political spectrum, but last year supporters of marriage equality were moved by Prime Minister David Cameron’s declaration at a party conference.
“I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative,” Cameron said. “I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”
However, not all members of the government or the church agree with the progressive stance of other members of the parliament or church.
The Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales Vincent Nichols and Archbishop of Southwark Peter Smith released a joint statement criticizing the bill.
“The meaning of marriage matters. It derives that meaning from its function as the foundation of the family,” they said. “The union of one man and one woman for love and mutual support and open to procreation has over the centuries formed a stable unit we call the family.”
But the Archbishop of Wales said that making it illegal for the Church in Wales to offer same-sex marriages would be a “step too far.”
If the same-sex marriage bill does pass, Britain will become the latest European country to legalize same-sex marriage. Other countries include the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, and Portugal. Within the next year, France is expected to approve a bill legalizing same-sex marriage as well.
Currently, gay and lesbian couples can enter into “civil partnerships” in Britain, which give them virtually all of the same rights as heterosexual married couples. According to the LA Times, about 50,000 partnerships have been registered since 2005.
If the bill is passed, couples who are in civil partnerships will be allowed to swap their existing partnership for marriage, but civil partnerships will continue to be offered to same-sex couples.
For many gay and lesbian couples, marriage equality could be on the horizon, but banning churches from performing ceremonies has weighed heavily on some religious leaders.
“In my personal opinion it’s a great pity it’s illegal for us not to even have the possibility to do it,” said Dr Barry Morgan. “It should be left for us to opt in or opt out.”