I beg to move amendment No. 42, in
schedule 4, page 26, line 27, leave out from 'clergyman' to 'reasonably' in line 28 and insert
'or any minister of a recognised religious body is not obliged to permit the marriage of a person to be solemnised in the church, chapel or other religious building of which he or she is a minister, if the minister'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 43, in
schedule 4, page 26, line 34, at end insert—
'(3) A registrar of births, marriages and deaths is not obliged to solemnise the marriage of a person if the registrar reasonably believes that the person's gender has become the acquired gender under the Gender Recognition Act 2004.'.
Amendment No. 45, in
clause 22, page 9, line 37, at end insert—
'( ) the disclosure is made within the context of a recognised religious body for the purpose of maintaining its procedures, practices, ethos and beliefs.'.
New clause 5—Religious bodies—
No. NC5, to move the following Clause:—
'Nothing in this Act shall prejudice the rights of individual recognised religious bodies to regulate their procedures and practices in accordance with their ethos and beliefs.'.
This group of amendments is primarily concerned with matters of interest to faith communities. Amendment No. 42 seeks to extend the provisions of schedule 4(1)(3). It would extend the protection given to clergymen to ministers of any recognised religious body with regard to the requirement to marry people. There remains confusion about the precise status of churches and all religious bodies as regards marriage. On 20 May 1998, the then Secretary of State for the Home Department, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), said in the House, at column 1017, that churches were viewed as public authorities as far as marriages are concerned. There is, therefore, a worry that the Bill, without specifically extending the scope of the schedule, as amendment No. 42 seeks to do, could subject ministers and celebrants to human rights legislation for declining to conduct the marriages of same-sex transsexual people.
There is also concern about the use of the buildings of religious bodies to celebrate what those religious communities regard as same-sex marriages. I do not want to rehearse the debate about what is a same-sex marriage. I applaud the Government's intention, although I think that they have got it the wrong way round. They are adamant that same-sex marriage should not happen and have gone to considerable lengths to establish that principle throughout the Bill.
Let us just accept that many people of all faiths share that view, but from the perspective of sex rather than gender. Therefore, they find themselves in a position of conscience and would have great difficulty if required to marry people. The members of those religious bodies would be concerned about the use of the buildings in such cases.
When the hon. Gentleman talks about the buildings that ''they'' use, I do not understand. Perhaps he could explain what he means by ''they'' and what this use is that so worries him and his colleagues.
As far as Christian organisations are concerned—I do not use the word ''church'', because that can have a specific context; for example, the Free Churches meet in many different types of buildings—I am talking about the buildings used for worship or meeting by any religious body. There should be no difficulty with this. For Christians, those are mainly, but not exclusively, churches.
Many people of faith would be concerned if they felt that a same-sex marriage had been celebrated or taken place in somewhere that is holy and special to them. They might feel violated and upset by that. There needs to be joint respect as far as the Bill is concerned. It rightly—I applaud its intention—gives rights to transsexuals, but what about the rights and sensitivities of people of faith? The sanctuary of a Baptist chapel, for example, would be regarded by the congregations concerned as a special and holy place. The fact that what they regard as a same-sex marriage
may be celebrated there against the will of that congregation is capable of causing genuine offence. I ask the Committee to accept that that is so.
In the spirit of a Bill that is trying to ensure that people's rights are protected, I hope we have fair and genuine regard for the rights of faith communities.
I am listening carefully and do not deny what the hon. Gentleman says. People will feel offended in the same way that many people feel offended if a church is attended by homosexuals. It is their right, if one likes, to hold that view, and their sensitivities may be offended. However, in a free society that respects rights, the question is where the balance lies. We have to recognise that a balance has to be struck—the same idea applies to free speech. People have to recognise that the stronger their views, the more likely they are to be offended by something. That applies to me also, and I respect the right of the hon. Gentleman and that of the people he knows in evangelical congregations to feel strongly about the same things I do, but we have to get the balance right. The Bill does that.
I disagree because we have to respect the freedom of association of all sorts of different groups in our society. That should be extended to faith groups as well. The hon. Gentleman digresses when he mentions homosexuals. I welcome them in all faith communities and do not think that there is any difficulty with that.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to take it from me that there are genuine concerns about the provisions among a large number of people of faith, including those from the Christian faith and the Muslim community. It is fair that their views are respected. I am sure that there will be a variety of opinions among religious bodies throughout the country. It will be possible for transsexuals to find some religious bodies that will not have a problem with celebrating a same-sex marriage, as other religious bodies might see it.
Amendment No. 43 deals with an issue of conscience for registrars. There is a precedent in that the Government do not oblige—it is a different case but there are similarities—doctors and nurses to take part in abortions if they do not want to. The Government have not ruled out the possibility of an uncompliant registrar being sacked. I do not think that the issue would be a problem for the Government. I am sure that they could find registrars who would not have a conscience problem in recognising a marriage that other registrars have personal difficulties with. However, the human rights that should extend to everyone should extend to registrars if they have genuine difficulty in carrying out some of the things that they will be required to do under the Bill. Human rights legislation should protect them in the same way that it protects other groups.
New clause 5 is tremendously important. I hope that it will find sympathy in the Committee. Considerable care was taken with its drafting. It states:
''Nothing in this Act shall prejudice the rights of individual recognised religious bodies to regulate their procedures and practices in accordance with their ethos and beliefs.''
Churches should be able to regulate their own affairs locally throughout the country. Where there is a wide range of religious view and opinion, different regulations, ethos and practices should be allowed to flourish throughout the country in different ways.
The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) mentioned the Manchester metro church. The amendment would allow it to regulate its affairs just as it likes. Is it too much to ask that churches and religious bodies are allowed to regulate their affairs as they see fit? That is a basic tenet of British freedom which I hope we will preserve by supporting the new clause.
I want to read out part of a letter I received this morning. It is not from one of my constituents, but from someone from Welwyn Garden City. Other Committee members may have received the letter as well. He writes on this Bill:
''Because of the adverse effect many Christians believe it will have on the scriptural integrity of their organisations, may I ask you to consider excluding all religious groups from its constraints''.
That is typical of a large number of letters that I receive, and I have no doubt that other hon. Members receive similar letters.
I just want to ensure that that comment does not pass without at least one question being asked. The letter that the hon. Gentleman just read out included the phrase ''adverse effect'' as if that were a given. He might want to consider that one reason why I hope that the Minister will resist such amendments is that we do not believe that there are adverse effects. We think that a fair balance is being achieved, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said.
I put back to the hon. Gentleman the point I made about the Manchester metro church—if that is its correct name—being able to regulate its affairs as it sees fit. Many religious bodies—not exclusively Christian ones, but Muslim as well—wish to exercise their own ethos and pastoral practices when it comes to welcoming and introducing transsexuals into their communities. That should be left to local discretion.
I do not understand how or why that threatens anyone. It is an essential proviso to ensure that the Bill is genuinely fair and has due regard for the sensibilities of people of faith as well as properly protecting the rights and interests of transsexual people. I hope that the amendment will receive support.
There is an issue about whether article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which protects freedom of thought, conscience and religion, could be called into question if the new clause is not included and churches' freedom to decide and implement their own religious beliefs and consciences are called into question by legal cases that are brought as a result of the Bill's provisions.
Amendment No. 45 would add another category to clause 22, under which disclosure may be made legally without the imposition of a £5,000 fine. The clause lists a number of organisations and instances for which that is the case. A week or so ago I spoke to the senior pastor of my church who felt that it was important for pastoral sensitivity and for integrating transsexuals into the church community that he should be able to tell other members of the pastoral team that a new member of the congregation was a transsexual. I have been told that transsexuals often believe that the only way in which they can be fully integrated into a church community is for the knowledge of what they have undergone to be shared with the pastoral team and perhaps members of the wider congregation. That should not be regarded as a threat or a concern. The vast number of pastors that I know would want to do that for the very best of reasons. There is serious concern in faith communities throughout the country that they could be criminalised if they wanted to share that information with other members of their pastoral team.
If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that members of a church and the organisation of a church have a right to know, for good or bad reasons, such personal information, would they have the right to know, and would the state and the NHS have the right to divulge, the past medical history of women who had had abortions? For some churches, that might be a significant matter when considering appointment or how they deal with those people pastorally.
For the membership of a religious body and the pastoral responsibilities of the leadership of religious bodies, the amendment is important and useful and would be genuinely helpful in a pastoral context.
It is important that the hon. Gentleman understands the question that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon asked because, for us to understand the point of his amendments, we must understand the context in which he suggests them. What troubles some of us as we listen to him—it certainly troubles me—is that for the best of motives, and I say this with enormous respect, there is a danger in not answering the question about the personal history of people held by the NHS, and abortions were specifically mentioned.
Why should transsexuals be specifically picked on and why are they a separate group from the rest of society? The purpose of the question asked by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was to understand why that group must be singled out for special treatment. It troubles some of us in the context
of balance and fairness that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire does not seem to be prepared to extend that special privilege to others who might be part of those church groups.
I apologise to the Committee if I responded inadequately to the earlier intervention. I shall try to give it more serious consideration, as the hon. Gentleman has raised it again.
There are probably several aspects of people's previous life histories that may have to be disclosed to faith communities, and that can be disclosed usefully. Let me give a personal illustration from my own church background, as the hon. Gentleman has tempted me down that route. I grew up in the Church of England. Recently, not on any doctrinal grounds, I joined a local Baptist church in my constituency, largely because it has a very good Sunday school for my children. That was my prime motivation. However, as part of formally becoming a church member, my wife and I were visited in our home by some of the church elders. They discussed our understanding of the Christian faith and asked about our previous church history. It was done gently and sensitively. If we had had any problems with it, we could have said no, but that was part of the membership process.
I do not know what the hon. Gentleman's church background is, if any. To be honest, the church elders' visit was a slight surprise to me, as I come from an Anglican background where that sort of thing does not happen, but there are many styles of churchmanship in this country, particularly in the free and non-conformist Churches. I cannot speak for other faiths such as Islam, but I do not think that it is too much to ask that this Committee accept that the issues we are dealing with are serious, important and sensitive for people of faith.
The Under-Secretary has argued time and again that we cannot have same-sex marriage. The hon. Member for St. Helens, South may disagree with him, but that is the position that the Government formally take. This issue is of concern to many people of faith, who may see it from a different perspective than that coming out of the arguments that we have had on sex and gender, which I do not want to go over again.
I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman a flavour of the context of my amendments. There are things that are necessarily personal and private. I have shared part of my own experience—something that I generally do not try to do in this place—in the hope that it may be helpful. I ask the Committee to consider the amendments and the new clause sympathetically. There really is nothing hostile about them. They are intended to protect some of the most decent, caring and public-spirited people in our communities, and to respect the ethos of their organisations.
Let local discretion flourish. Do not the three parties represented here believe in what is called the new localism? Let local churches and faith communities run their own affairs. I do not think that that is asking too much. I do not understand why the heavy hand of
the state needs to interfere in what I am sure the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon would argue very strongly is a private and personal activity.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially when he is making a complicated and difficult argument, but surely the issue is a matter of personal privacy. Why should it be the case, under any circumstances, that a very personal matter for the transsexual concerned should be shared in a public way with members of a religious or any other body? One reason why we are considering this legislation is because transsexuals took our Government to the European Court of Human Rights, as their right to privacy had been transgressed. Surely, if we amended the Bill in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, we would be legislating once again for the gender history of transsexuals, which they wish to be a private matter, to be made public. Surely, that would be in breach of the European convention on human rights.
The hon. Gentleman's point relates solely to amendment No. 45 and not to my other two amendments or my new clause 5. I understand where he is coming from, but I have discussed the matter at length with the pastor of my church, who I know would want to welcome transsexuals to his church to hear the gospel, as he would say. He operates as part of a team. How would he know about a transsexual in the first place? It could be that the transsexual person had told him. He might have pastoral staff. Churches are organised in different ways. They may have youth workers and people who oversee the church's home groups. Such people are used to dealing with private and confidential information about members of their congregation. There is no singling out or separation of transsexuals. They are not treated as different or put in a separate box. They will have private and personal information about things that people have done which they share with the pastoral team. Transsexuals may talk voluntarily to members of faith organisations. This is part and parcel of what happens in many different faith communities.
The hon. Gentleman gives a very good example of the practice of the local Baptist church of which he recently became a member. Does he accept that he consented to sharing private information with the church? Under our provisions, no problem would arise if a transsexual consented to sharing private information because they wanted to be part of a faith.
I understand the Minister's point, but I return to the example of my church, because it is the one that I know best. The information that was shared initially by one or two people who checked me out for my beliefs and suitability would probably have then been shared with the senior pastor and a very small team of elders, as they are called. My reading of the Bill suggests that they would be subject to a £5,000 fine if they did so. I would be happy to consider any constraints that the Minister might want to place on
the provision so that information definitely does not go outside the church and is shared only within the pastoral team or other group.
I want to be helpful. Acceptance of a transsexual in their acquired gender, irrespective of the fact that they have a gender recognition certificate in law, strikes at the very heart of the Bill. There will, however, always be some people who do not accept that anyone can change their birth gender. Those people will always regard a transsexual as being of their birth gender, irrespective of the fact that they have been through the gender reassignment process. That group of people will include some Church ministers. As I listened to my hon. Friend, I thought of a circumstance in which it would be important for a minister to disclose this confidential information. If a couple approached a minister to marry them, and the minister believed that one of them was a transsexual and that the other person was not aware of it, does my hon. Friend believe that it would be justified to disclose that information in that circumstance?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The circumstance that she describes illustrates the reason for my new clause and three amendments. The case that she cites is of concern to a number of people, whether people of faith or not. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has done the Committee a great service by giving the sort of example that the amendments would help to deal with.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) raises an important example, but it is up to a member of a religious organisation to refuse, if they so choose, to marry a couple in their church. The provision in the Bill merely applies to clergy from the established Church, who have particular obligations in respect of civil procedures.
I repeat the comments that I made a few moments ago. We have had the Diane Parry case in south Wales. I know categorically of two other legal cases facing churches and, as sure as night follows day, there will be many more legal cases that will affect religious bodies.
I repeat the point made by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs about Churches being public authorities as far as marriage is concerned. There are genuine fears that, under human rights legislation, nonconformist and other ministers, whom amendment No. 42 tries to deal with, could find themselves subject to litigation as a result of the Bill if it is not amended.
There is also the issue of the use of Church buildings and buildings used by religious bodies. That seems to be protected in Wales; it is not protected in England and it is not protected as far as the nonconformist Churches are concerned.
My hon. Friend makes a further good point. The more we consider and debate this issue, the more we could find further reasons to view sympathetically the amendments and the new clause.
I say to the Minister that the issue will not go away. There is nothing malicious about this; I genuinely see it as an attempt to give balance to the Bill. Everyone has rights. People of faith have rights and faith organisations have rights, and by their very nature
they are different from the state and from secular society. I hope that there will be a genuine acknowledgement of that point by the Minister—if not now, when the Bill is debated on Report.
Debate adjourned.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past five o'clock till Tuesday 16 March at half-past Nine o'clock.