I’m delighted by the news that the government is proposing to allow religious institutions that wish to perform same-sex marriage, even as a distinctly non-religious person this has always felt somewhat incongruous to me – the state imposing a religious position by force of law on all religious institutions regardless of any given religious institutions own religious position. The heart of the idea of a secular government is that governments don’t do this. A secular state – as ours should be – permits everyone to believe as they wish, and act on that belief so long as it is accordance with the law, and in return the law does not distinguish between religious and non-religious identities within the law.
With that in mind, I am absolutely astonished at the phrasing that appears to be being proposed. Unless I’m reading this wrong, it seems that the law is going to say that any non-religious place that is licensed to perform a marriage, will and must perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. This is right and proper. But if you are a member of the Church of England, or the Church of Wales, and you happen to be gay, lesbian or bisexual and marrying a person of the same sex, it will be illegal for a vicar to conduct that wedding regardless of the religious convictions of that church, that parish or that congregation on same-sex marriage. This is farcical! It places into law a theocratic position that is not even universal in the Church of England, it imposes that theocratic position by force of law, and forces everyone within that institution to abide by a theocracy they may not agree with. This is the antithesis of religious freedom!
It gets worse. The European Convention on Human Rights (of which I am a huge supporter), covers conscience and religion in Article 9, and it states:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, and to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
In the first clause of Article 9, it clearly states everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. That surely includes the CofE and CofW vicars who support same-sex marriage? They too have the right to manifest their religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. These congregations that support marriage equality have that right too. Instead, those congregations and vicars have had a theocratic position they disagree with enforced upon them by force of law. How does this make sense?
The government has defended this position by claiming that is a “quadruple lock” to prevent religious institutions being “forced” to conduct same-sex marriage against their religious convictions, and frankly this just highlights the utter stupidity of a legally established religion in the UK, but it also doesn’t end there. Looking at the proposals, the new law only explicitly makes it illegal for any vicar in the CofE or the CofW churches to perform same-sex marriages, but something that is overlooked is that it implicitly does something odd for any other religious denomination.
Under the current proposals, whilst the government sets out the official policy for the Church of England, other religious institutions get to set out their own policies. However, it is the heads of those religious organisations that set out whether or not individuals are permitted to perform same-sex marriage. So, for example, the Catholic Church (presumably) would outlaw marriage equality within Catholic churches, and the Quakers would (undoubtedly) conduct those marriages. So far so proper’ish. Religion is a funny thing though, very few people within any given religious institution agree on what their religion permits or does not permit. Under the law, what happens to a Catholic priest who has no religious objection to same-sex marriage? It would appear they will be unable to perform those marriages (and, presumably, would subject to both the Catholic church’s Cannon law as well as UK law should they follow their right to freedom of religion we’re told is being taken so seriously). But what about the Quaker equivalent (I confess, I know little about how the Quakers or the Unitarians [to give but two examples] work)?
I’m guessing there is a Quaker equivalent to a Catholic priest or CofE vicar, and if there is, what happens if that Quaker vicar has a religious objection to same-sex marriage? The general view of the Quakers appears to be in favour of same-sex marriage, but if we look at so many religious institutions, I would hardly be surprised if this position was universal within Quaker movement. So what do you do with a person who is otherwise licensed to perform marriages within an organisation such as the Quakers, but has a religious objection to doing so at odds with his or her institution?
My point is this: I hope this bill gets passed, I really do. But it has to be said, when religion and law intersect things will always get messy. Does the law really have any business interfering in the internal politics of religion, and can it ever deal with the fact that you can’t legislate an individuals conscience? Surely a simpler approach would have been to treat individual churches as private clubs. If you’re a member of that particular club, you abide by it’s rules on marriage. If you don’t like those rules, you find another club (who will probably like you a lot more).
This is the Tao of secularism.