POLITICS
13/09/2012 08:27 BST | Updated 31/01/2013 15:29 GMT

Churches Need Protection From Gay Marriage 'Coercion', Says Eric Pickles

On Tuesday Nick Clegg retracted an accusation that opponents of gay marriage were "bigots" (which no one noticed at all), today his cabinet colleague Eric Pickles said churches have "legitimate fears" that they will be forced to conduct the ceremonies against their wishes.

In an attack on "aggressive secularism", the communities secretary said Christianity had a "unique position" in British society and the views of churches should be listened to above those of other religions.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday, Pickles said he said he recognised the government’s consultation on equal civil marriage had created a "strong reaction" from many in religious circles.

"In particular, there are legitimate fears of European Court of Human Rights challenges and churches being forced down the line to conduct such ceremonies against their wishes.

"These concerns need to be explicitly addressed in any legislative reform to provide safeguards against such coercion."

Pickles' comments come after Nick Clegg managed to annoy both fans and opponents of gay marriage by issuing a statement calling those opposed to equal marriage "bigots" - then changing his mind and withdrawing it.

Yesterday the deputy prime minister wrote to religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Westminster who believes gay relationships are simply "friendships", to insist he did not think those opposed to same-sex marriage were bigoted.

Under proposals set out by the government same-sex couples would be able to get married in civil ceremonies, but the plans stop short of forcing churches to perform weddings.

However churches opposed to gay marriage have warned that this would be open to challenge in the European courts and they could end up having to conduct gay marriages against their wishes.

Gay rights campaign group Stonewall said that faiths that wish to conduct same-sex marriages should be allowed to, but that no faith should be forced by law to conduct same-sex marriages against its wishes.

But Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, the president of the Law Society, told The Huffington Post UK that the Church of England had already recognised there was "no likelihood" of the European Court of Human Rights forcing churches to conduct gay marriages.

"It may well be, in due course, that the Court will say that those religious bodies which support religious gay marriage should be allowed to conduct them, which the current proposals would not permit," she said.

"This would seem to be a solution that would respect the religious views of all, which seems like a good thing in a matter that is so essential to the doctrine of all religions.”

Stonewall's Andy Wasley said: "This is a vital issue of religious freedom. We agree that the law must be clear on this point – just like the Alli Amendment to the Civil Partnership Act, which allowed religious institutions to conduct civil partnership ceremonies."

The 2004 Civil Partnership Act was amended in 2010 to include the line: "For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so."

SEE ALSO: Terry Sanderson: Is Eric Pickles Deliberately Trying to Mislead Us?

The government has yet to specify when it will introduce legislation to bring in gay marriage, although it has promised to do so before the next election.

David Cameron has promised to push through the plans, arguing that conservatives should be in favour of marriage as it produces stability.

"If its good enough for straight people like me, its good enough for everybody and that’s why we should have gay marriage and we will," he said in July.

On Thursday morning Labour MP Chris Bryant announced he would introduce his own private members bill, a move that will test the waters for support (and Tory backbench opposition) to the government's plans.

"I will be introducing a ten minute rule bill on 30 October entitled The Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill, to enact marriage equality," he wrote on Twitter.

As well as many backbenchers, a significant number of Tory cabinet ministers are thought to have had concerns about the plan including justice secretary Chris Grayling, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, environment secretary Owen Paterson, Baroness Warsi and Pickles.

While defence secretary Philip Hammond has previously declared gay marriage should be delayed in order to "focus on the things that matter".

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Pickles also attacked secularism, arguing that established religions have a superior status to other beliefs.

"We should not be bashful about asserting that the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church have a greater role to play in the public life of our nation than the Church of Elvis or the Church of Scientology.

He added: "Faith communities provide a clear moral compass and a call to action that benefits society as a whole."

"I believe that the Christian Churches have a unique position in British society and a particularly strong claim to be heard," he said.