Sikh Council caution on ending civil marriage ceremonies

It has been reported in The Daily Telegraph that Sikhs In England, a specialist advisory body, has advised Sikh temples that they should halt all civil marriage ceremonies on their premises to protect them from possible legal challenges for refusing to conduct same-sex weddings.  The story is carried elsewhere, but the source of the original letter or further information on Sikhs in England is not readily accessible.  However, the Sikh Council UK (SCUK) – the largest representative body of Sikhs in the UK – has issued a press release in which it

“urge[s] Gurdwaras to be cautious when considering advice to stop Civil Marriage Ceremonies at the Gurdwara premises as the advice clearly betrays a lack of understanding of the legal framework and the actual practice of Anand Karaj ceremony and the associated civil registration procedure, [emphasis added]”.

This is supported by advice and guidance for gurdwaras and other material including a letter from Helen Grant, Minister for Women and Equalities, and an e-mail from an  Melanie Field, Deputy Director, Equal Marriage Team.

The SCUK states that

“[it has] no objection to same sex couples wanting to make commitments/vows to each other, as they currently do so when they enter civil partnerships. Nor do we object to same sex couples having all legal and other rights, similar to a married couple within a civic union.  However, [it objects] to the word marriage being used to replace civil union.”

Whilst the fourth element of the government’s so-called “quadruple lock” is specific to the Church of England and the Church in Wales, the other parts are relevant to Gurdwaras , i.e. those which

–  ensure that no religious organisation or individual minister can be forced to marry same sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises. A same sex couple could not successfully take a Gurdwara to court for refusing to carry out same sex marriage ceremonies on their premises.

–  provide an opt-in system for religious organisations who wish to conduct marriages for same sex couples. For religious organisations to opt-in their governing body would have to give consent. For Gurdwaras this means the Akal Takhat Sahib would have to give consent.

–  amend the Equality Act 2010 to reflect that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same sex couple.

For gurdwaras to remain within the law whilst following the Sikh Rehat Maryada and 2005 Akal Takhat Sandesh, the Sikh Council UK believes that they should adopt the following resolution at a meeting of their Management Committee:

“We, the Management Committee of ………………………….. Gurdwara Sahib note that whereas the Anand Karaj ceremony can only take place at a Gurdwara between a man and a woman in accordance with the Sikh Rehat Maryada and whereas the Akal Takhat issued a Sandesh in January 2005 confirming the prohibition of same sex marriages from taking place at any Gurdwara, in keeping with the tenets of the Sikh faith we resolve the following –

1. same sex marriages shall not be permitted to take place on any of our Gurdwara’s premises

2. we shall not permit the taking of Guru Granth Sahib from our Gurdwara to other non-Gurdwara premises for the purposes of conducting same sex marriages

3. none of our members, employees, visiting ministers of faith, wedding registrars, volunteers or other persons with any relevant authority as the case may be shall be permitted to conduct same sex ceremonies at our Gurdwara or in any other private or public property

4. we would be opposed towards the establishment of any institution for carrying out of same sex marriages according to Sikh traditions”

SCUK states that once this resolution is passed and recorded in the gurdwara Minutes Book it will ensure that the gurdwara has a robust policy that complies with the provisions of the law whilst maintaining the accepted principles within the Rehat Maryada and 2005 Akal Takhat Sandesh.

It further refers to the “clear statements of intent from Ministers giving categorical assurances that no faith organisation will be forced to carry out same sex marriages”, citing the letter from Helen Grant and the e-mail from Melanie Field whose team at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport oversaw the passage of the law. This e-mail clarifies in detail the legal framework and the practice of civil and religious marriages within gurdwaras and further clarifies the legal protections for religious places of worship: see below.

Comment

We do not comment on the legal advice, but would observe that there are clear conflicts between this position and the reported advice of Sikhs in England. Nevertheless, we also note the statement by the Sikh Council UK that

“[if], at any time, there is a legal challenge to a gurdwara offering Civil Marriage Ceremonies or indeed the Anand Karaj ceremony it would be clearly against the spirit and the word of the guarantees and the Sikh Council UK will robustly hold politicians to account.”

With regard to both same-sex and to opposite-sex marriage, it is important to distinguish between the legal requirements of the Marriage Act 1949 in relation to the persons permitted to solemnize the marriage [1], and the premises in which this is undertaken [2].  The is clarified, in relation to marriage in a gurdwara, in Melanie Field’s e-mail which states inter alia that:

–  Under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, a place of worship will need to be registered separately for marriages of same sex couples, and it cannot be so registered without the written consent of the relevant governing authority of the religious organisation concerned. So a Gurdwara could not be registered for marriages of same sex couples without the written consent of the governing authority of the Sikh religion;

–  A legally valid marriage in a gurdwara is a religious marriage ceremony – it is conducted according to religious rites and usages. The “civil” aspect of formal registration of such a marriage – done by a registrar or authorised person – does not make the ceremony a civil one.  A civil marriage ceremony can only take place in a secular building – a register office or approved premises (such as a hotel or stately home approved for that purpose). It is prohibited by law to have any religious content or symbolism in a civil marriage ceremony.

–  A couple having a religious marriage ceremony in a gurdwara which is not registered for the solemnisation of (opposite sex) marriages would also have to have a civil marriage ceremony in a register office or secular approved premises in order for their marriage to be legally valid.

– When conducting a marriage ceremony according to religious rites and usages, the religious organisation is not acting on behalf of the State. The fact that the religious ceremony must involve certain “civil” elements in order for the marriage to be legally valid (the aspects done by the registrar or authorised person) does not mean the religious organisation is carrying out a civil or public function.

Norman Doe’s book Law and Religion in Europe, (2011, OUP) pp 216-222 contains a detailed analysis of State recognition of religious marriages within the UK and Europe.



[1] For which section 53 includes specific provisions in relation to the Church of England, the Church in Wales, the Society of Friends and persons professing the Jewish religion.

[2] For which the Marriages (Approved Premises) Regulations SI 1995/510, as amended, are the Principal Regulations.

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