OPINION: English marriage law locks out same-sex couples from religious weddings

FT_15.04.27_gay marriage

Image: pewresearch.org

By Dr Silvia Falcetta

Same-sex couples in England and Wales cannot marry in more than 99% of churches, mosques, temples and other places of worship in which different-sex couples can marry.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 granted same-sex couples the opportunity to have a religious marriage, but only when a religious organisation has ‘opted in’ to carrying out such marriages.

Of the 22,442 certified places of worship in England and Wales that are currently registered for the solemnisation of different-sex marriage, only 274 are also registered for the solemnisation of same-sex marriage (approximately 1.2%).

Same-sex couples can also marry in a small number of other places, that are not required to be registered, in accordance with the usages of the Jewish religion and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Same-sex couples are completely excluded from marrying in almost 16,000 churches of the Church of England and approximately 1,300 churches of the Church in Wales.

In an article recently published in the International Journal of Law, Policy and The Family, I consider the consequences of the prohibition of same-sex marriage in places of worship for same-sex couples who want a religious marriage.

One consequence is that many same-sex couples struggle to find a place of worship that will marry them. As our respondents point out, the process of looking for a place of worship often involves legal complexities, practical challenges and anxieties about approaching churches where couples fear there is a chance of encountering hostility.

Another consequence is that many same-sex couples are unable to marry in accordance with the religious beliefs of one or both of the couple. For instance, most of our respondents had their marriages solemnised in places of worship associated with religious traditions about which they had little prior knowledge.

Some same-sex couples may not wish to marry in a place of worship that is not associated with their own denomination. For example, most places of worship registered for same-sex marriage are affiliated to theologically liberal Christian traditions and, for some same-sex couples, the idea of marrying in such a place of worship will have little appeal.

It is therefore unsurprising that my previous survey found that no place of worship reported a same-sex marriage being solemnised in which one or both of the couple was, for example, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh.

Same-sex couples who want a religious marriage are, therefore, at a significant disadvantage to different-sex couples. As one participant put it, the current legal framework creates ‘inequalities’ between same-sex couples and different-sex couples wishing to have a religious marriage.

In order to address such difference in opportunity, parliament would need to change English marriage law.

Parliament could, for example, allow individual congregations to opt in to same-sex marriage, even when the broader religious organisation has not done so. This may generate strong resistance from religious organisations that oppose same-sex marriage.

Alternatively, parliament could compel religious organisations to solemnise marriage with no distinction between different-sex couples and same-sex couples. This option would certainly be perceived by many as an intolerable curtailment of religious freedom. Indeed, our respondents oppose this type of reform and point out that the current legal framework enables a clear distinction between inclusive churches who ‘opt in’ to same-sex marriage and churches that do not.

Parliament could also move to a legal framework where only civil marriage is lawful, but this option would be contentious given the long-standing history of English law recognising religious marriage.

As things stand, any reform of the law is unlikely. A significant change may be brought about by the recent vote of the Methodist Church to allow same-sex marriage, which could result in many Methodist places of worship opting in to solemnising same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless, the number of places of worship registered for same-sex marriage is likely to remain a small proportion of the overall number of places of worship in which different-sex couples can marry. It seems certain, therefore, that same-sex couples who want a religious marriage will remain at a significant disadvantage for years to come.

By Dr Silvia Falcetta is research associate in the department of sociology at the University of York

All opinions are the author’s own

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