The government has agreed to consider allowing civil partnerships to be held in religious premises after a debate in the House of Lords last night.
An amendment to the Equality Bill was tabled by Lord Alli, who said that a number of faiths were seeking to hold civil partnership ceremonies.
He agreed to withdraw it after the majority of peers voiced their support for it. Government minister Glenys Thornton said that a number of issues needed to be “teased out” but added that the government was committed to making the change.
She said: “Any change can therefore be brought only after proper and careful consideration of these issues, which is why it is important that we listen, discuss and consider views on this important issue, particularly the views of those churches and organisations that want to conduct same-sex unions on a voluntary basis so that same-sex couples can have the opportunity to formalise their relationships in a religious setting.”
Faiths such as the Quakers, Liberal Judaism, the Metropolitan Community Churches and the Unitarian Church have all expressed their wishes to carry out civil partnerships.
Lord Alli had emphasised that his amendment was designed to offer more freedom, rather than ordering faiths to take any kind of action.
He said: “It seems rather perverse that the law prevents them from doing so: the law no longer respects religious freedoms; it seems to be dictating religious behaviour, which cannot be right.”
The government is unlikely to have time to change the law before a general election. Currently, the Civil Partnerships Act requires that ceremonies must not have any religious element.
Despite peers’ support of religious civil partnerships last night, they defeated government attempts to force churches to hire gays and trans people.
The changes would have meant that staff such as youth workers, janitors and administrative workers cannot be refused employment due to their sexuality.
Baroness O’Cathain, who tabled the successful amendments, said that forcing churches to practise non-discrimination could result in rape centres being forced to employ men.
Keith Porteous-Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said that this was very likely to result in the government being prosecuted by the European Commission.
The government has already been warned twice by the European Commission to bring the law into line with an equality directive.
Porteous-Wood said: “This amendment gives churches the absolute right to legally discriminate against gay administrative workers.
“We are very disappointed that the law has not been clarified.
“Religious agitation in the House of Lords has forced the government into a humiliating defeat and on to a collision course with the European Commission.”