In England and Wales, there are approximately 40,000 places of worship in which different-sex couples can get married. Almost all of these places of worship do not permit same-sex couples to marry.
In every village, town and city throughout England and Wales, therefore, there is a place of worship that might as well put a sign on its door that says:
“MARRIAGE SERVICES AVAILABLE – NO GAYS ALLOWED”
Religious organisations are permitted by law to provide marriage services to different-sex couples but not to same-sex couples. They cannot be held liable under anti-discrimination law for doing so, because of special protections in the Equality Act 2010.
A tiny number of places of worship have taken the step of becoming registered for same-sex marriage. For each one of these places of worship – there are only 182 of them – this is a very significant step.
A new report – which I have been working on – presents findings from a study of 71 places of worship in England and Wales that are registered for same-sex marriage.
The study reveals a wide range of interesting facts about the number of same-sex religious marriage ceremonies in places of worship (which remain small), the faith of the people getting married, where they live and how far they travel to find a place of worship in which they can marry.
For instance, three quarters of places of worship that have married a same-sex couple have provided a religious marriage ceremony to a couple who have not previously worshiped there. Moreover, most places of worship will accommodate the faith-based preferences of same-sex couples in a marriage ceremony. This is important because same-sex couples not permitted to marry in their own place of worship may decide to use the place of worship of another faith group to get married.
The research also shows that places of worship that register for same-sex marriage may experience opposition and antagonism from other religious groups in their local areas. One minister stated, for example:
“There are some local churches and leaders who won’t work with us. I’ve been in post for a year and this is slowly starting to change but when I first came I was ‘that minister from that church’.”
Registering a place of worship for same-sex marriage can produce conflict within a congregation, and some members of a congregation may decide to leave.
However, many places of worship say that registering for same-sex marriage has produced positive benefits within a congregation. These include strengthening the solidarity of existing members, supporting existing LGBT members, and attracting new members.
One important finding from our research is that the legal “protections” for individuals who don’t want to participate in a same-sex marriage ceremony are not relevant to the vast majority of places of worship. This is because, in 90% of places of worship no person has refused to participate in a same-sex marriage ceremony.
I hope that the report will stimulate debate about the current relationship between marriage, religion, and equality on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Ultimately, I hope that the report will encourage people to question whether they want to live in a society in which churches, mosques, synagogues and temples can tell same-sex couples they are not welcome to marry there, and be legally allowed to do so.
The full report, Religious marriage of same-sex couples: A report on places of worship in England and Wales registered for the solemnisation of same-sex marriage, is available here.