By Paul Goodman
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I was told months ago that civil servants were finding it difficult to frame same-sex marriage proposals that would bar churches – and mosques, temples, synagogues and so on – from being able to conduct them.
So I suspect that today's story in the Evening Standard – which reports that "David Cameron backs gay weddings in church" – has more to do with the legal advice Ministers have been given than with a sudden change of mind or heart in Downing Street.
Which raises a question: namely, that if some churches, say, agree to conduct same-sex marriages, but others refuse, what happens to the latter when a legal case if brought against them? The Standard has been briefed on the point.
It reports that "government lawyers told [Maria] Miller they have devised a foolproof legal 'lock' to protect churches that oppose the reform from being dragged in". "Foolproof", eh? I detect anxiety in Whitehall – and Number 10.
After all, it's less than a month since the Times reported behind its paywall that "Ministers have decided to override warnings from lawyers that churches would
be vulnerable to pressure from the courts and would end up being forced to
marry gay couples".
The Government was then proposing, according to the Times story, to give churches "an explicit opt-out from having to perform gay weddings". That, of course, was before today's news about David Cameron's decision.
If lawyers advised Ministers that churches would be vulnerable to lawsuits if excluded from legislation, what will those same lawyers have advised Ministers is the case if churches are included in legislation?
I'm not a lawyer, but it seems at least possible that a church which refuses to conduct same-sex marriages was vulnerable before the Prime Minister's change of heart – and is even more vulnerable after it.
Mr Cameron and the Government's decision to allow churches to conduct such marriages, assuming that the Standard is right, could therefore have significant implications for religious freedom (not to overstate the case).