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Church warns over same-sex marriage
Gay marriage threatens the establishment of the Church of England and could lead to it being forced out of its role of conducting weddings on behalf of the state, it has claimed.
The Church of England said introducing same-sex marriage would lead to an unprecedented clash between its own canon law - that marriage is between a man and a woman - and that of Parliament.
It also warned that in spite of ministerial assurances that churches would not have to conduct gay marriages, it would be "very doubtful" whether limiting same-sex couples to non-religious ceremonies would withstand a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights. This could make it impossible for the Church of England to continue its role conducting marriages on behalf of the state, it warned.
The Church of England added that introducing gay marriage could also lead to challenges to civil partnership law, as removing the concept of gender from marriage while leaving it in place for civil partnerships would be unlikely to be "legally sustainable".
In a highly critical response to the Government's consultation on gay marriage which closes on Thursday, the Church of England said several "major elements" of the proposals had not been thought through properly and were not legally "sound". The Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said: "We continue to be supportive of the gay community and want to see that inclusion in our society increased and developed. I think the difficulty we have here is the substitution of equality for uniformity, that is to say that there can be no distinction at all between men and women."
Under the current law, anyone who is resident in England has a legal right to marry in his or her Church of England parish church irrespective of religious affiliation and the minister of the parish is under a legal duty to conduct the marriage. Around a quarter of weddings in England take place in Church of England churches with the number rising in 2010 by 4% to 54,700 compared to 52,730 in 2009.
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, which campaigns for gay rights, said: "There's manifestly no evidence that the recognition of long-term same-sex relationships has any impact on the institution of marriage for heterosexuals." Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell accused the Church of England of "scaremongering, exaggerating the effects of same-sex marriage and advocating legal discrimination", saying public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage.
A Home Office spokesman said: "We welcome the Church of England's response and we will be carefully considering all points of view before publishing the outcome of the consultation later in the year."
Prisons minister Crispin Blunt, speaking on BBC Breakfast, said: "As far as I can see the Church of England is split down the middle on this issue. Of course, what the Government is proposing is around marriage in the eyes of the state. We are seeking to protect, indeed proscribe, religious organisations from offering gay marriage. That may be problematic legally but the proposal that the Government is putting forward is that marriage should be equal in the eyes of the state, whether it is between a same-sex couple or whether it is between a man and a woman."
He added: "It may be that proscribing all religious organisations who have a licence to carry out marriage from carrying out same-sex marriages - that may be rather more problematic legally than trying to give a protection for those religious organisations that do not wish to do so and making sure that they do not have to do so. These things will be debated in Parliament when the proposals are brought forward."