In an article in the Independent this week, Nick Clegg commented that he would like to go beyond the initial remit of the Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage and ‘permit churches to allow gay marriage, if they choose to do so’.
Whilst it is not a surprise that he should make such a comment, Mr Clegg’s assertion that ‘no religious organisation who does not wish to conduct a same-sex marriage should be forced to do so’ puts him on a path leading towards a headlong collision with the European Court of Human Rights. A case decided in the European Court of Human Rights earlier this year (see CARE’s briefing, page 3, point 10) indicates that such a position (where same-sex marriage is legalised but a provider of marriages refuses to provide marriage to same-sex couples on the grounds of religious conscience) is untenable. The words of Mr Clegg and others who promise churches will not be compelled to perform marriages for same-sex couples become rather empty in this light. It may well be that they will not compel churches to perform such marriages and have no desire to do so, but they cannot offer a guarantee that churches will not be compelled by other means, resulting in a situation where churches must either provide marriages for heterosexual and same-sex couples (and thereby violate their faith conscience) or withdraw from the provision of marriages altogether.