Church of England bishops argued yesterday that clergy members could be sued for refusing to carry out religious civil partnerships for gay couples.
Earlier this week, the House of Lords approved an amendment to the Equality Bill allowing faiths to hold the ceremonies if they wish.
The Lords vote does not make the change law, as it must be approved by the government and an amendment must be made to the Civil Partnership Act.
Despite the fact that Lord Waheed Alli’s amendment made it clear that churches would have the option of hosting the ceremonies, the Bishop of Winchester Michael Scott-Joynt claimed that gay couples could use human rights legislation to sue vicars who chose not to officiate for them.
The Bishop of Winchester said: “I regret enormously the vote. I believe that it will open, not the Church of England but individual clergy, to charges of discrimination if they solemnise marriages … but refuse to host civil partnership signings in their churches.”
The proposed law would allow civil partnerships to be held in religious buildings and contain religious language. Under current law, they must be completely secular, although some faiths will bless gay couples.
Faiths such as Liberal Judaism, the Quakers and the Unitarians have all expressed their wishes to hold civil partnership ceremonies.
During Tuesday’s debate, others claimed the move could soon see churches forced to carry out ceremonies for gay couples.
The Bishop of Bradford warned of “unintended consequences” of the law and that he thought it would not remain optional.
Lord Waddington said: “If this amendment were carried, it would only be a matter of time before it was argued that it was discriminatory for a church incumbent to refuse to allow a civil partnership ceremony to take place when the law allowed it.”
Lord Tebbit added: “If we make it a permissive option, sooner or later, the legal proceedings will start to enforce it upon churches against the will of many ministers in those churches.”
When plans to table the amendment were revealed in November last year, Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill told PinkNews.co.uk: “We are very clear that this is an issue of religious freedom and if faiths want to celebrate the ceremonies of two men or two women, it’s not for someone else to say you can’t do that.
“Right now, faiths shouldn’t be forced to hold civil partnerships, although in ten or 20 years, that may change.”