Out gay peer Lord Waheed Alli has accused bishops of misleading church leaders and the public over plans to allow gay couples to have their civil partnerships in church.
Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill to change the law was approved 95 votes to 21 last Tuesday. It would allow faiths to hold the ceremonies if they wish, without obligation.
Following the vote, 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 Bradford warned of “unintended consequences” of the law and that he thought it would not remain optional, while similar sentiments were expressed by Lord Waddington and Lord Tebbit.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Lord Alli accused the bishops of “misrepresenting” what the amendment meant.
He wrote: “Religious freedom means letting the Quakers, the Unitarians and the Liberal Jews host civil partnerships: a decision that they had considered in prayer and decided in conscience.
“But religious freedom also means respecting the decision of the Church of England and the Catholic Church – decisions also made in prayer and taken in conscience – that they do not wish to do so.
“That is what we agreed during the debate, and trying to pretend otherwise is to entirely misrepresent the way which this decision was taken.”
Lord Alli also directly criticised the Bishop of Winchester, saying he was “sensationalising the issue”.
“I was therefore saddened by the Bishop of Winchester, who tried to characterise this debate by suggesting that Church of England vicars will be forced to host civil partnerships in their building. Let’s not pretend that this amendment forces anything onto anyone.
“Let’s not pretend that individual clergy are going to face litigation. Let’s not pretend that churches will have to close just for obeying Church of England law.
“This amendment was all about allowing religious groups to obey their own law, and the Bishop of Winchester should be above sensationalising the issue.
Under current law, civil partnerships may not contain any religious references.
The change, if approved by the government, means they can be held in churches and other religious buildings, and may contain religious language.
Last week, the Daily Telegraph reported that equalities minister Harriet Harman could remove the amendment over fears it could raise problems in the marriage system.