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3.15 pm

Baroness Neuberger: I wish to speak to Amendment 119A. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has cited, it is four years since civil partnerships became lawful in this country. During that time, 35,000 couples have entered into a civil partnership. That has brought huge happiness, recognition and benefits to couples across the UK. We all know that, at present, civil partnerships, like civil marriages, cannot be conducted in religious premises.

Unlike heterosexual couples who have a choice, gay couples are disbarred from making any sort of faith commitment within a religious building. As president of Liberal Judaism, which was the first religious organisation, as far as we know, to produce and publish a liturgy for same-sex commitment ceremonies, I believe that those faith groups and individual organisations that wish to allow civil partnerships to take place within their religious premises should not be prohibited from doing so. That would mean a civil partnership taking place within a Quaker meeting house, for example, or in a Unitarian church, or in a Liberal Judaism synagogue, followed by some kind of faith-based commitment ceremony, the second following naturally from the first.

I want to make it clear that those faith-based organisations which support the amendment do not argue that everyone should allow such ceremonies.

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This is purely a permissive amendment to allow those who wish to do so the right to do it. I have some personal experience in this area. I have officiated at many same-sex commitment ceremonies which I have found uplifting and moving. Often there is a sense of joy far beyond that experienced with heterosexual marriages, however delightful they are, as only recently have gay couples, who have been together for years, been able to have any kind of public ceremony. We have come a long way but there is a little further to go.

Recently, I talked to two registrars at civil partnerships where I have been a guest and where I have officiated at a commitment ceremony later on. They said, speaking from their personal viewpoint, that they find the prohibition on the use of religious premises strange. They argue that for many people, at whose ceremonies they have officiated, a religious element would have been desirable had it been possible. In my experience, there has been real joy for gay couples who have had a religious element after a civil partnership ceremony. That has been carried out at a reception in a hall or wherever and not in a synagogue. On two occasions, the couples concerned had specifically told me how they would have been overjoyed and, even more-this is very Jewish-their parents would have been overjoyed, if they could have had a ceremony within a synagogue as well. I believed them: they had tears in their eyes as they raised that with me. The prohibition meant that, in some way, what they had was second best.

When we in Liberal Judaism published our liturgy for same-sex commitment ceremonies and encouraged couples who had been through a civil partnership ceremony to have a religious commitment ceremony afterwards, we were responding to a deeply felt desire. I support the amendment because I believe that it is a matter of common justice that we recognise the love and commitment of same-sex couples. I can see no reason why there should be a prohibition against such ceremonies taking place on religious premises.

The Religious Society of Friends, the Unitarian Church and the movement for Liberal Judaism are all in accord on this and I hope that people of other faiths, or other parts of the same faiths, will see that we are seeking to overturn a prohibition and by no means forcing others to do the same as us. I believe that this should be a matter for religious organisations to decide for themselves and that, once they have done so, the law of the land should not stand in their way.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I have received a powerful letter from a Quaker telling me something I had not known before-that the Quakers, at their yearly meeting last year, decided to seek a change in the law so that what the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, described could come to pass. This is a permissive amendment and I am utterly persuaded by it. I would be totally opposed to it being a requirement, because many churches would find this utterly abhorrent; but in so far as there are churches and synagogues and other faith places that would like this to happen, it is entirely appropriate and I support the amendment.

Baroness Campbell of Surbiton: My Lords, I support Amendment 119A moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. It feels very good to be supporting another part of the Bill. I am not, I hope, just a disability lobby. I

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feel very passionately about the whole equality agenda, and was persuaded to add my name to this amendment because I see the issue as a matter of religious freedom. I support its permissive approach: it seems good to enable the various religious denominations which now wish to perform and bless civil partnerships to be able to do so. There is no suggestion that this may be mandatory; I have had many conversations with my Christian friends over the past few weeks to talk about the permissiveness of this approach, and they feel that it is a fair approach.

Some of your Lordships will have received a briefing note from the Quakers and others who feel that they should be able to follow the insights of their members in celebrating long-lived committed relationships between man and man or woman and woman in exactly the same way as they currently recognise the marriage of opposite-sex couples. Our laws sometimes need to adapt to catch up with society. I think that this is clearly the situation here. For me, accepting and valuing human diversity by supporting our fundamental differences will be the glue that binds us in the future. I urge your Lordships to support the amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alli, suffers, as do the churches, from the determination of the Government and others to use the language of orientation when it is perfectly clear-and I am sure that it is perfectly clear to him-that the issue for the churches and for people of some other faiths is of sexual behaviour, not of sexual orientation. However, granted the language that is used, both in European legislation and in our own, we have had no alternative but to go along with this language of sexual orientation when it is actually sexual conduct that is the matter at stake for the churches. I should be very surprised indeed if the noble Lord had any evidence of any clergy being put at any kind of risk at all simply on the grounds of their orientation, in the sense that the churches use the word, as opposed to their conduct in matters sexual.

It also needs to be clear-the noble Lord himself was very clear-that the churches have a particular understanding of marriage. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester was right when he said that this is not distinctly aimed at gay people, but at the question of sexual conduct, whether marital, heterosexual or homosexual.

Rather surprisingly, too, the noble Lord concentrated simply on priests. The churches' interest in these matters-we will come to this when we discuss the next group of amendments-lies in our absolutely rooted conviction that a person of faith seeks to live in every respect according to the teaching, tenets and vision of the faith of which they are part. That is just as much a matter for certain lay people in the employment of the churches as it is for clergy.

Lastly, there are exemptions in the Bill on a whole range of points, such as the need for disability organisations to be able to employ particular people, for organisations connected with race and ethnicity to employ people of a particular ethnicity at certain points, and for crisis centres and women's refuges to

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employ particular people of a particular gender. It would be discriminatory if the House and Parliament went down the route suggested by the noble Lord's amendment.

On Amendment 119A, noble Lords will well remember the Civil Partnership Act, in which civil partnership was postulated in significant ways as being analogous to civil marriage, notwithstanding the fact that nothing in that Act says in any way at all what a civil partnership is or to what those entering into it are committing themselves. Her Majesty's Government in that process made it absolutely clear that they did not regard the civil partnership as a form of marriage.

The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and to which noble Baronesses have spoken so clearly, would blur the distinction between civil and religious marriage as two paths to effect what is in law the same relationship, because registrars by law are not permitted to engage in, or to allow others to engage in, any kind of religious ceremony in a civil marriage. It would also blur the characteristics of the civil partnership as distinct from marriage, whether conducted in a church service or by a registrar.

Shortly down the line, were this amendment to be passed-I understand that Stonewall has made this intention entirely clear-is the likelihood of a steady and continuing pressure on, if not a forcing of, the churches, the Church of England among them, to compromise on our convictions that marriage has a character that is distinct from that of a civil partnership. Churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, that distinction. That is why we should refuse the noble Lord's amendment, enticing though it is.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, I support Amendment 119A. The Government were absolutely right to respect the religious sensitivities of the Church of England when the Civil Partnership Bill went through Parliament, but since that time a new situation has emerged. The Quakers, liberal Jews and other religious bodies have made it quite clear that they want permission to conduct these ceremonies in a religious context with religious language. This is a fundamental issue of religious freedom not just for the individual but for what Burke called one of the little platoons-the institutions-of our society. Their freedom should be respected in this regard.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I was privileged to attend here in Westminster the civil partnership celebration of a very senior British medical doctor and his American partner. It was a very moving and lovely ceremony, but they had another ceremony in New York in their church. They are deeply committed Christians, and that dimension was quite different and terribly important to them. It made them feel that they were on a par with everyone else. I support the amendment.

3.30 pm

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I also support Amendment 119A. It is quite clear from the briefings, which we have had from all sides, that this is a permissive, not a mandatory clause. If the Church of England

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wishes to continue in the way it always has, then that is entirely a matter for it. I am sure it will be able to stand up to whatever extra pressure is put as time goes on. On the churches that clearly want to be allowed to do this, if the particular organisation, church, priest or whoever is in charge wishes to perform such a ceremony, we should allow what people at other churches want. I support the amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: I apologise for speaking again from these Benches, but one important distinction is being missed. A lot depends on what you mean by "a church". You might say that the Church of England may carry on in the way that it wants to, but the people responsible for marriages in the Church of England are not an abstraction called the Church of England or even, although I may sometimes wish it were different, the bishops; the people responsible are the incumbents of parish churches. I am sympathetic to this amendment and hope we may find a way that would enable those religious bodies that are quite comfortable with this to proceed in that way. However, I fear that to pass the amendment in its present form would put pressure not on the national institution of the Church of England but on the incumbents of the parishes and lead to widespread disarray throughout the Church of England. I hope there may be some room for manoeuvre over this, but as it stands it would achieve something different from that which is intended.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: First, we do not support Amendment 97E because it is not necessary. We hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, will not find it necessary to divide the House on it. However, we support Amendment 119A for reasons I will briefly give.

Amendment 97E seeks to remove sexual orientation as an occupational requirement that may be used as a reason not to employ someone for the purposes of employment by a religious organisation. Paragraph 2 of Schedule 9 lists the exceptions for occupational requirements where the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion, and those reproduce the existing exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act and the sexual orientation regulations. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and Article 8 protects the right to respect of private and family life, including a person's sexuality and sexual identity.

I respectfully put it to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester that the distinction he and others seek to draw between it being okay to be gay but not okay to have sex while being gay would not be recognised under the European convention, any more than would be the distinction drawn between sex outside and inside marriage. It represents a deeply held and sincere belief by some devout Christians-which I respect-but it is simply not the case that, for example, people who enter into a civil partnership are okay if they do not have sex together. The whole point of the relationship of being sexual partners is that you have an enduring and loving relationship in which sex is a perfectly normal activity. With respect, that distinction would not pass muster under European convention or European Union law.

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It is important to recognise-I hope here the bishops will cheer up-that in accordance with Article 9 of the convention, religious organisations are entitled to organise themselves in accordance with their beliefs and those of their followers. For example, it is well recognised that a church or ecclesiastical body may as such exercise on behalf of its adherents the rights guaranteed by Article 9 of the convention and that any interference must be proportionate. The Article 9 rights of the churches and their supporters and/or believers potentially conflict with the Article 8 rights of gay and lesbian people.

In recent years, the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has become enshrined in European law. Convention case law has established that Article 14 includes differences of treatment because of sexual orientation, with no distinction drawn between having sex or being gay. Convention law requires that where sexual orientation is the ground for a difference of treatment, there must be significant and convincing objective justification for the treatment. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I was a member, made that clear in its report on the sexual orientation regulations in 2007.

The same is true under EU law. I will not detain the House by quoting from the framework directive. Suffice it to say in reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that the only exception permitted in striking a fair balance between religious freedom and the right of respect for the private life of gay and lesbian people is one which accords with the strict test of proportionality. Therefore, the amendment which seeks to remove the safeguard for churches is overkill and unnecessary.

Amendment 119A would amend the Civil Partnership Act by removing all bans on civil partnerships which take place in religious premises or using religious services. I was the author of the Private Member's Bill which resulted in the Civil Partnership Act, so I am naturally very sympathetic to the amendment. I agree with the powerful speeches that the House has heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger, Lady Greengross and Lady Howe of Idlicote, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. Many religious same-sex couples want to have their partnerships blessed by religious organisations. Others feel that civil partnerships are not equal to marriage. Article 12 of the convention guarantees the right to marry, but this applies only to a man and a woman. In the United States, litigation is pending to establish a constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry. I doubt that it will succeed.

Amendment 199A does not go so far. It would permit but not require a religious aspect to be given to civil partnership ceremonies if the church or other religious body agrees. I believe that this is an issue which needs to be dealt with. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, this is permissive and is not in any way an imposition. Regrettably, I doubt whether we can do that in the Bill, which does not mean that we should not do it. It may be that we can do it in the Bill, but broadening the application of Article 8 of the convention in respect of the private and family life of same-sex couples needs to be done in

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a way that does not require religions to jump one way, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester would jump, or the other way, as, for example, the Quakers or liberal Jews would jump. As to churches, there is an issue about how religious acceptance in the Bill might work. The public function would be considered as regards the registration in providing a facility or service in a religious setting. There are also some convention issues about civil marriage.

While we fully support the amendment in its object, we hope that the Minister will express the Government's support for the principle of Amendment 119A and will undertake to consult speedily on whether and how it can be put into law, having of course consulted religious organisations, gay rights organisations and the public at large.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I may be very naive in this matter. I was not present in the House in 2004 when the Civil Partnership Act was passed. I was playing judicial truant at the time and I apologise for that. It seems to me that two simple questions are raised. First, is it proper for a religious organisation that wishes to bless a civil partnership to be proscribed from doing that? Secondly, is it correct that the individual involved in that civil partnership should be denied that blessing if that religious organisation wishes so to pronounce it? It seems to be entirely a question of whether or not there is any good reason at this stage for that limitation. As to why it was brought about in 2004, I know not. It may very well be due to sensibilities relating to religious organisations, but it is entirely permissive. It does not place any obligation upon anybody who does not wish that obligation to be so placed.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, I have already declared my interests at the start of Committee stage. There is a further interest I should declare as a churchwarden in the Church of England in the County of Somerset in the benefice of Chewton Mendip and Emborough. In that capacity, I have come across several examples of the situations that we are now debating. The problem here is that there are two separate issues. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, wants to remove any possibility of there being a requirement related to sexual orientation for any form of employment. The second amendment, which is on a separate issue, means that there would be no ban on allowing civil partnerships to take place on religious premises.

As I understood it from the noble Lord-several noble Lords who have participated in this debate have echoed this-the second amendment is intended to be permissive. In other words, his intention is not to force religious premises to hold civil partnership ceremonies but to allow them to do so with their permission. I recall, as he reminded us, that on Second Reading the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester suggested he would be happy to get into discussions with the noble Lord regarding his suggestion of,

which, he said,

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I have not yet heard what has been the result of those discussions and whether there were any further ideas brought to the table. This topic ought to be thought through with the seriousness that it deserves. As we have just been reminded, there were debates on this issue when the Civil Partnership Bill was in Committee in this House. I remember that we were informed by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, that civil partnerships were to,

As I understood the position, therefore, both civil marriage and civil partnerships were to mirror each other and remain entirely secular. That is what we decided. In other words, to carry out a civil partnership ceremony in a religious premises would be a breach of the law. The Government have therefore made their views well known on this subject. We on these Benches would agree with their view. The civil partnership ceremony and the civil marriage ceremony are considered equally and neither can take place on religious premises.

The debates on the Civil Partnership Act informed us that, while the actual ceremony could not take place on religious premises, a religious centre would then be allowed to act in whatever way it wished as regards the couple. They could, for example, give them a blessing-we have had one example of this-or add some other religious element to the day. Perhaps the Minister could inform the House whether this is still the case. Does the Minister have any figures or estimates as to the number of couples who add a religious element on to the end of their civil partnership? Indeed, has any research taken place to think through the impact of the proposals being made by the noble Lord? I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, that we have come a long way. I greatly welcome the fact that we have done so, but we must pause for a moment and consider how much further we should go in what is a very sensitive area.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, would prevent sexual orientation ever being a requirement for a position of employment, and I think he recognises that what he says involves controversy. He does not believe that anyone should be sacked from or persecuted in their job or vocation because of their sexuality. However, does he accept that whatever his intentions, which we can understand, this would be an attack on the central doctrines or tenets of various religious organisations, some of them very influential in our lives?

We have to address more fully the scope of exemptions applied to employment regulations, which we will do in later debates. Perhaps it suffices to say now that we believe it is right to preserve the status quo regarding employment provisions, but when the noble Lord comes to consider what action to take, I would like to ask him whether he considers that religious organisations that believe in gender specification being a requirement for employment, such as the Roman Catholic church which believes that women should not be priests, should be allowed to make such specifications. Also, if he believes that sexual orientation should not be allowed to be part of a specification for employment, what is

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his reasoning behind allowing gender and certain other characteristics to remain? We would argue that they should remain as they are, but if the noble Lord is interested in changing the law for one characteristic, he has to look at the possibility of changing it for others as well, which is why we on these Benches are not minded to support his amendment.

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