UK – Gay marriage: no opt-out for Christian registrars

Christian registrars will not be able to opt out of performing gay marriages if they object on grounds of belief, the Government’s human rights watchdog has said.

Gay marriage: no opt-out for Christian registrars says human rights watchdog Ms Ladele was refused the right to opt out of performing civil partnership ceremonies

In guidance to MPs, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said marriage registrars were public officials and so should expect to be “required” to carry out the ceremonies.

The document makes clear that employees, including teachers and chaplains working in the public sector, should be free to express their views on marriage without being disciplined.

But it says that religious protection is “a qualified right” which “the state can interfere with” in some circumstances.

The question of whether council registrars can object to carrying out parts of their jobs if they clash with their religious beliefs was thrown into the spotlight by the case of Lillian Ladele, who was one of four Christians who went to the European Court of Human Rights last year over disputes involving their employers.

Ms Ladele, a former registrar from Islington, north London, was refused the right to opt out of performing civil partnership ceremonies which went against her traditional beliefs about the teaching of the Bible.

She accused Islington Council of discriminating against her on grounds of religion and initially won her case at an employment tribunal.

But that decision was overturned on appeal, in favour of the council which argued it had to prevent discrimination against gay people.

That position was then upheld last month by the European Court in a controversial split decision.

The Government’s same-sex marriage bill includes a special clause protecting priests and other clerics from being forced to carry out same-sex weddings against their beliefs.

But, in its legal advice to MPs scrutinising the bill, the EHRC makes clear that this would not apply to civil registrars.

It says: “[The clause] does not concern the conduct of a marriage registrar, superintendent registrar or the Registrar General.

“So registrars who are employed to deliver a public function may be required to solemnise same-sex marriages.

“This is similar to requirements that have been placed on some registrars since the Civil Partnerships Act 2004, meaning many have been required to perform civil partnerships as part of their duties.”

It adds that existing opt-outs for registrars in some councils could be retained “for a time-limited period” as long as colleagues were available to perform the ceremonies.

But it says this would only be a “transitional” arrangement applying to existing registrars and not those who were employed in the future.

Mike Judge, campaign director of the Coalition For Marriage, which opposes same-sex unions, said: “The EHRC is a quango with a track record for attacking, rather than defending the civil liberty of people who believe in traditional marriage, but even it recognises that registrars will not be able exercise conscience in the future.”

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