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Finally, we need to consider the position of the civil registrars who would need to conduct these ceremonies. To what extent would or should they be able to opt out of attending at some or all religious premises? While on the face of it my noble friend's amendment looks sensible and logical, it will not achieve what he is seeking, as I have explained. My noble friend and others may think that the potential problems that I have raised are not insurmountable. They may be right.
Lord Smith of Finsbury: I am puzzled by the Leader of the House's argument that this somehow puts civil marriage at a disadvantage, because surely a heterosexual couple who wish to get married have the free choice of being able to marry in religious premises with a religious ceremony.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I hear what noble Lords are saying around the Chamber, but if people have been divorced in certain religions, as the noble Lord said, they are not allowed to be married in some churches.
Viscount Astor: I am delighted to inform the Minister that the Church of England has changed its position since that was the case some years ago. The Roman Catholic Church has always allowed divorcees to get married, as has the Church of Scotland.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: I will come back to the noble Lord in writing because my notes say one thing and other noble Lords are saying something else. I will give the clear view of the Government, which is the right and proper thing to do. It may be too late if the amendment is passed, but it is still good for people to have clarification on this issue.
This is a complex issue, which we need to consider carefully if we are to be sure that any changes will achieve what they are designed to do and will be workable in practice. Should my noble friend be successful in making his amendment, there would need to be wide discussion and careful consideration of what further measures would need to be put in place and what further legislation would be needed. That is why the Government believe that the most appropriate way forward is to consider the issue further and to solve these problems before any legislative change is made.
The amendment raises issues of fundamental religious conscience. This is not a question about civil rights for lesbians and gay men. Same-sex couples already have the right to legal recognition of their relationship, with the rights and responsibilities which go along with that, thanks to the groundbreaking Civil Partnership Act, which I am proud to say this Government placed on the statute book in 2004. Our record on rights for LGB people is second to none, but this amendment would give faith organisations the freedom to host civil partnerships on their premises, raising fundamental issues for religious organisations, and it is therefore right that they are considered as matters of individual conscience. As my noble friend clearly stated, this is a matter of religious freedom. That is why we want to have a full and open discussion with all those concerned. We can then consider the issues carefully and arrive at the right way forward for this country, which deals with the wide range of matters which will be affected by the change-
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it would be unrealistic for me to promise to have a consultation before Third Reading, which we hope will take place in the next few days or weeks. I am therefore thinking in the longer term. We can embark on this consultation quite soon, but clearly it would not conclude until after the election. We want to take the time to listen to the wide spectrum of views, including from the faith communities, LGB representatives, and those who work as registrars. We will consider the whole range of options to gain a clearer understanding of the impact of the issues involved before deciding how to proceed.
On this basis, as noble Lords will know, we have a free vote on this amendment. If it is taken to a vote and the will of the House is to accept it, there will need to be further work to determine the extent of further legislation needed to ensure that it is possible to approve religious premises for civil partnerships. Our preference would be to get this right from the outset.
As we have said before, while we support the intention of my noble friend's amendments, I have today raised our concerns about how this would work in practice. I have made it clear that we are committed to taking the time to consider any changes carefully, and I therefore urge my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Alli: My Lords, the hour is late so I will restrict my comments. First, let me thank all those who participated in the debate and all those who have given me their support. I single out only one person: the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton. It is well past the time she normally leaves, oxygen is short, and it was incredibly kind and generous of her to support my amendment tonight.
Lord Alli: I also thank the Bishops, former Bishops and theologians who wrote to the Times to add their support to the amendment. I am clearly disappointed by the response from the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Bradford, but I hear his argument. That disappointment is nothing compared with the words which the Leader of the House uttered, but let me say this to those outside and to everyone in this House; the Leader of the House and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, have been supporters of these rights throughout their time in office and on the Back Benches, they have worked incredibly hard to secure us our free vote, and I thank them wholeheartedly for their continued support, whatever small print they were forced to read out. On that basis, I beg to test the opinion of the House.
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