Jonathan Jones

Will the European court force churches to conduct gay weddings?

Would the European Court of Human Rights force churches to conduct same-sex marriages against their will? That’s the professed fear of some opponents of the Same Sex Marriage Bill being debated in the Commons today. The Church of England sent MPs a briefing paper saying ‘We doubt the ability of the Government to make the legislation watertight against challenge in the European courts’, and such fears have been invoked in today’s debate by Graham Brady and other Tory backbenchers. They present their opposition as a defence of religious freedom (even though maintaining the current law restricts the religious freedom of those churches who would like to perform same-sex marriages).

Such fears were stoked by a Daily Mail article last year, reporting the ECtHR’s decision in Gas and Dubois v. France. The Mail wrongly claimed that:

‘The ruling also says that if gay couples are allowed to marry, any church that offers weddings will be guilty of discrimination if it declines to marry same-sex couples. It means that if MPs legislate for same-sex marriage, the Coalition’s promise that churches will not be compelled to conduct the weddings will be worthless.’

On the UK Human Rights Blog, Daniel Sokol rightly pointed out that ‘The judgment says no such thing’ and said it ‘appears to be pure fabrication’ on the part of the Mail. The Mail conceded, correcting its article online by removing the first sentence and admitting that ‘this statement was not, in fact, contained within the judgement’ — though it cheekily left the second sentence as a non sequitur.

But those who fear churches being forced to conduct same-sex marriages might well find the ECtHR an ally rather than the bogeyman many portray it as. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees ‘the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’, including the freedom ‘to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance’.

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