The British government announced plans on Tuesday to legalize gay marriage next year.
Since 2005, gay couples in Britain have been able to form civil partnerships, which gives them the same legal protection, adoption and inheritance rights as heterosexual married partners, but not the official label of marriage. The bill the government plans to introduce likely will have enough support in Parliament to become law since Prime Minister David Cameron and many of his cabinet support gay marriage.
Although gay couples will be able to get married, they won’t be able to have a ceremony in any of Britain’s official churches. The law will ban the Church of England and the Anglican Church in Wales from conducting same-sex ceremonies. Equalities minister Maria Miller said she hopes the ban will reassure religious opponents of same-sex marriage that they will not be forced to take part. It also will ensure that religious organizations or ministers who refuse to marry a same-sex couple can't be sued for discrimination.
"No religious organization will ever be forced to conduct marriages for same-sex couples," Miller told lawmakers.
Even though the law protects the official Church of England and religious organizations from discrimination claims, it wouldn’t protect business-owning church members from having to recognize gay marriage in any other context outside the church.
British lawyer, Aidan O’Neil, warned in a legal opinion against a variety of situations in which supporters of traditional marriage would be forced to recognize gay unions as marriage. Primary school teachers who object to same-sex friendly textbooks could be fired. Christian parents who oppose gay marriage could be prevented from adopting. Marriage registrars who object to gay marriage would still be forced to provide their services to gay couples. O’Neil also concluded that the protection for religious wedding officiants might eventually be overturned under European human rights laws.
For business owners, discrimination lawsuits like the one against bed and breakfast owner Susanne Wilkinson also could increase. In March, a gay couple sued Wilkinson for refusing to let them share a suit on her property in Berkshire, U.K.. In her defense, Wilkinson said the arrangement conflicted with her personal beliefs—she also refuses heterosexual couples who aren’t married to share a suite—but that reasoning didn’t hold up in court. The judge ruled that as a service provider, she couldn’t use her personal beliefs as a basis for refusing service and fined Wilkinson £3600, about $4600, for injury to feeling.
Gay rights campaigners welcomed the government's announcement, but religious leaders, including some of those within the Church of England, condemned it. Bishop of Leicester Timothy Stevens underscored the church's official view that "marriage is a union between one man and one woman—a social institution that predates both church and state and has been the glue that has bound countless successive societies together."
The law will receive opposition from members of Cameron's Conservative Party, among them lawmaker Richard Drax: “I would like to ask the Secretary of State and the government what right have they got, other than arrogance and intolerance, to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?"