Support the right for religious groups to hold civil partnerships!

8:45 am - February 26th 2010

by Sunder Katwala    

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The House of Lords is to consider an amendment to the Equality Bill on March 2nd next week, which would make it legal for civil partnerships to be registered on the premises of those religious associations who wish to do so.

Tuesday’s Times carried a letter in support of the reform, which saw current and former senior Anglican Bishops joining other voices who represent faith traditions which want to be able to register and celebrate civil partnerships. These included liberal Judaism, Quakers and Unitarians who believe the measure is required to uphold their own religious freedom and individual rights.

The Times also reported that “the government has yet to decide whether to back the amendment. It wants to avoid another confrontation with church leaders.”

However, the Bishop of Leicester, who convenes the 26 bishops in the House of Lords, is publicly supporting the amendment. The case that opponents of the amendment entirely contradict themselves on the principle of freedom of belief has been made powerfully by Iain McLean in an open letter to the Bishop of Winchester and by Stuart White.

I have sent this letter to Harriet Harman, as Minister for Equality, to urge that the government support the amendment.


Harriet Harman
Minister for Equality

Dear Harriet

I am writing to urge that the government back Waheed Alli’s excellent reasoned amendment to the Equality Bill, which I understand is to be tabled in the House of Lords on March 2nd . This would make it legal for civil partnerships to be registered on the premises of religious associations who wish to do so, without creating any obligation on the part of those religious groups who do not wish to do that.

The introduction of civil partnerships has been one of the great achievements of this Labour government, bringing enormous personal happiness to many people and a broader pride for many across our country at the successful civilizing advance which this popular social change represents.

This relatively modest further change would once again mean a great deal in the lives of many people undertaking a civil partnership. I believe it would further strengthen the landmark Equality Bill which you have done a great deal to champion. In doing so, it would both protect and extend the principle of freedom of conscience in a way which ought to command a broad consensus.

You will have seen that an impressively broad coalition of voices – from a wide range of different faith and secular perspectives – have voiced their support for the measure, including senior current and former Bishops in the Church of England as well as from a range of other faith perspectives. It is certainly one which campaigners for equality across the Labour Party also support. The Times newspaper has also made a powerful argument in favour of the reform.

That breadth of support reflects the sensible way in which this has been proposed, demonstrating respect for differences over the principle of civil partnerships among faith groups. It also reflects the strength of the underlying principle to which the amendment appeals.

Those advocating that the principle of religious freedom means that no church or faith group should be coerced into having to register civil partnerships must surely extend that religious freedom to other faith groups, who should not be refused the opportunity to do so in accordance with their own conscience and belief. Otherwise, their own argument becomes an incoherent one.

Nobody has yet explained how the principle of freedom of belief and conscience could possibly be used to argue against the proposed amendment, since that is the core principle which it seeks to uphold.

Given how much you personally, and the government generally, have done to advance the cause of greater equality and fairness in Britain, I do hope that this reform is one which the government will support.

Best wishes

Sunder Katwala
General Secretary
Fabian Society
(writing in a personal capacity)


Anyone who wants to back the campaign is encouraged to e-mail Harriet Harman via or to message her or Ben Bradshaw via Twitter.
You can also sign up to the campaign at

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments

1. Sunder Katwala
2. Mike Killingworth

As you say, Sunder, the Unitarian movement supports this legislative change. Indeed, a number of our chapels are refusing to conduct weddings until it is brought in.

I don’t see why the Government wouldn’t support it – unless it wants to send a message that liberal religion isn’t “real” religion.

No one who doesn’t want to recognise same-sex marriages (let’s call them what they are :)) would be forced to do so.

I really can not think of a single argument against this. What possible justification could there be for not passing this amendment?

What utter hypocrisy!

So you support the rights of faith groups, but only when they are calling for something you want?

I hope we’ll hear no criticism in the future of others who support e.g. their own faith groups splitting off so that they can avoid having gay clergy.

Since you have abandoned secularism to wade in on this point, you have not got a leg to stand on to criticise others who want their own agenda met by the church.

“Support the right of religious groups to condemn homosexuality!”

Why not, Sunder?

“Support the right of religious groups to teach creationism!”

“Support the right of religious groups to withdraw children from inappropriate sex education!”

Why should your call be heeded above others?

6. Mike Killingworth

Presumably Morrigan isn’t in favour of throwing bombs on religious grounds… but is in favour of allowing religious groups to teach that other people are pigs/goats/dogs…

Well now that Sunder has abandoned secularism to bring his political agenda to the church, what right does any of us have to criticise others who do the same?

What is the qualitative difference between believing that others are ‘pigs/goats/dogs’ and believing that gays should marry in church, except that you like one article of faith and not the other?

If secularists want religion out of politics, they should keep their politics out of religion.

@10: Perhaps you should keep your religion out of other people’s religion?

And of course, nobody has actually attempted to prevent religions which want to from opposing abortion, or homosexuality, or whatever. Whilst I profoundly disagree with faith groups who hold these views, it remains perfectly legal for them to hold and preach them. They just can’t use them as a justification for actually breaking the law. And if they want to receive state funding for their activities (e.g. in education), they need to adhere to the recognised standards. You can teach whatever bollocks you like in Sunday School, but if you’re running a state-funded Primary School, there are standards you must adhere to. If you don’t like those standards, don’t ask for state funding and accept that you’re not going to get accredited.

Absolutely nobody is taking about requiring churches to recognise civil partnerships against their will.

Absolutely nobody is taking about requiring churches to recognise civil partnerships against their will.

So why the need for this post then?

Do you have some sort of reading comprehension problem? Read the very first paragraph again. Here, I’ll even highlight the important bits to help you:

The House of Lords is to consider an amendment to the Equality Bill on March 2nd next week, which would make it legal for civil partnerships to be registered on the premises of those religious associations who wish to do so.

11. Sunder Katwala


One reason this modest reform ought to command a broad consensus is that the claims of religious liberty and of ‘secular’ equality are congruent. Sometimes these are at odds with each other, so that some negotiation between them is necessary, as with the introduction of civil partnerships. While I support the principle of civil partnerships, I do not think registering them should be mandated on faith groups which do not support them. That is clearly one of the premises of this argument. It can be taken as a recognition of religious liberty. Stuart White sets that out well in his post.

Your charge of hypocrisy presumably depends on the premise that I would usually hold a strong secularist position, such as the response to a society of many faiths and none should be (i) there should be no public recognition of religion whatsoever in a liberal democracy; or (ii) religious reasoning should be ‘kept at home’ and is not legitimate in the civic square or public discourse.

As it happens, I don’t in fact hold either position. (i) is certainly a legitimate position (which I suspect many/most contributors to LC do hold), but it isn’t the only way to address the issue of sharing a multi-faith and secular society, and isn’t my own preferred approach. And my own view is that the stronger claim still in (ii) is incoherent, in settling as a condition of discussion and negotiation one of the issues which is at stake in a civic, political negotiation of the content of our common citizenship.

I have written a couple of journal articles on this in the past, and have a forthcoming book chapter on this at some point. But I am not sure any are freely available online. The first page of a ppr journal piece for IPPR can be read here

There are some further links in this post.

It may be that some very strong secularists would want to prevent religious associations having any role in civil partnerships, though I suspect that would be an unusual position.

It is possible to oppose the freedom of conscience claims sincerely put by those from a number of faith perspectives in this case. But it surely can not be done on upholding freedom of belief grounds. Rather it would have to impose on those groups a particular set of beliefs that they do not share, presumably on the grounds that it represented a fundamental moral truth which should trump their freedom of conscience. Claims for religious autonomy (or indeed for religious authority over the whole society) can be made in terms of fundamental truth, but at present in Britain they are mostly put in terms of respect for freedom of belief.

God damn, Morrigan. If you can’t see that there’s a difference between enabling/supporting/funding bigotry and this, then there really is no hope for you.

Secularism is entirely about supporting the rights of religion, just not letting religion infringe on rights itself. There is absolutely nothing anti-secular about this move; indeed, it’s the exact opposite. This is in sharp contrast to, say, letting state-funded organisations from enforcing their faith (and by extension, the bigotries and inequalities of that particular faith) with the assistance of public money and state support.

13. Mike Killingworth

Quite so, Sunder. I would only add that – always assuming that Morrigan is being serious rather than childishly tiresome – his/her position would seem to lead to the State refusing to recognise any religious marriage – I believe this is the case in France, where a civil ceremony is also required. As so often, British practice is not the most logical.

And of course if the State is funding an activity – such as schooling – then it can, must & will behave like any other paying piper. It is for this reason that Unitarians don’t run schools (there’s one with a Unitarian ethos but no formal links to the movement). We don’t want to put ourselves in the position that,say, the Catholics now find themselves in.

If the Tories do indeed go through with their education proposals, it will be interesting to see if the concept of national standards set & policed by government survives. I have no idea how much public support it commands nowadays.

14. Stuart White

Its important that the government support this amendment. But what about the Conservatives?

The article in The Times on this topic this week claimed that the Conservatives were ‘likely’ to back the amendment.

But in a letter to one of his constituents a couple of weeks ago, David Cameron indicated – without giving any reasons – that he opposes the amendment. See:

So who knows what the Conservatives will do.

If there are liberal Tory readers of LC who support this amendment, then you need to make your views clear to your party leaders. And asap!

The links are sorted – apologies for that

16. Sunder Katwala

Mike – many thanks for your interesting comments about the Unitarian position.

I had forgotten Stuart’s earlier post, which suggests that the Opposition’s position is also unclear at this stage.

17. Sunder Katwala

Thanks for all comments.

Happily, the Lords passed the amendment, by 95-21 on a free vote.

Though the main speakers from both frontbenches are reported to have spoken against it. I don’t know more, so am not clear if there was any objection to the principle; it may have been about not wanting new measures while trying to finalise the Bill before the election.

Since the Commons would very easily agree this, on a free vote with rather limited opposition, I would hope keeping it in would now be not just the right thing to do but also more straightforward than the idea of trying to get the Lords to now drop the measure. It was always more likely that this measure could face more difficulty in the Lords (given the opposition of some Bishops in the earlier debates, which has been challenged by their colleagues more recently; and the traditionalist right arguments of Tebbit/Waddington on equality issues generally usually have somewhat more support in the Lords than the Commons)

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Support the right for religious groups to hold civil partnerships!

  2. Sunder Katwala

    Dear Harriet … pls support amendment allowing those faith groups who want to register civil partnerships to do so

  3. Anthony Painter

    RT @nextleft: RT @libcon Support right for religious groups to hold civil partnerships! < unanswerable.

  4. Sunder Katwala

    @RuthieGledhill excellent Times coverage Tue. I have written to Harriet Harman to urge govt support amendment

  5. Caspar Aremi

    RT @SohoPolitico: Dear @HarrietHarman, pls support amendment allowing faith groups to register civil partnerships.

  6. Two Seven Two

    RT @nextleft: Dear Harriet … pls support amendment allowing those faith groups who want to register civil partnerships to do so

  7. Agnieszka Tokarska

    amendment to the Equality Bill: civil partnerships to be registered on the premises of churches:

  8. Sunder Katwala

    RT @libcon Support the right for religious groups to hold civil partnerships!

  9. Soho Politico

    Dear @HarrietHarman, pls support amendment allowing faith groups to register civil partnerships. (pls RT) @nextleft

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