Law and religion round-up – 12th September

Human fertilisation and embryology

On Monday, the UK Government announced that after a consultation to seek views about changing the statutory storage limits for gametes and embryos it has decided that

“the policy which best balances the four tests above is to offer everyone a new approach based on 10-year renewable storage periods up to a maximum of 55 years, regardless of medical need. This policy will provide equity to all fertility patients, irrespective of medical need, wishing to freeze their gametes or embryos.”

It believes that the proposed policy change “will over time simplify the administrative tasks for the regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and for fertility clinics”.

Same-sex blessings and same-sex marriage

At the meeting of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales on 6 September 2021, approval was given to a service of blessing for same-sex partnerships. A Bill to authorise a service of blessing was passed by the necessary two-thirds majority in each of the three orders: bishops, clergy and laity. The service will be used experimentally for five years and it will be up to individual clergy to decide whether or not they wish to lead it.

The Church of England does not currently recognise same-sex marriages, forbids clergy to bless same-sex unions and only allows celibate gay and lesbian clergy to minister. The Scottish Episcopal Church voted to allow gay couples to marry in church in 2017, making it the first major Christian church in the UK to allow same-sex marriages.

At present, the law of the Church of Scotland only allows ministers and deacons to marry opposite-sex couples. However, in May 2021 the General Assembly voted 320 to 211 to approve draft legislation that would allow ministers and deacons to marry same-sex couples if they wish – though none would be obliged to perform such blessings. It has been sent down to presbyteries under the provisions of the Barrier Act and, if a majority agrees, will return to next year’s General Assembly for final approval.

The first same-sex religious wedding in Northern Ireland took place in December after changes in the law were introduced by the Northern Ireland Office. It was solemnized at the Harbour Faith Community, which describes itself as “a progressive, informal Anglican style church based in Carrickfergus”.

COVID-19: Churches’ guidance for “Step 4”

Following the lifting of the majority of legal restrictions in England on 19 July 2021, churches have been revising their COVID-19 guidance and documentation. The problem faced by places of worship and others is that in the absence of much of the former legislative provisions, it is difficult to set meaningful benchmarks. This week we reviewed the guidance of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference in England and Wales, both of which have produced a 12-page document encompassing the majority of church-based activities; apart from one or two differences in their approach, both are remarkably similar.

The Church in Wales updated its Covid 19 Guidance Marriages and Funerals Alert Level 0 and Covid 19 Churches Risk Assessment Guidance Alert Level 0 on 3 September. This Guidance was issued following the publication by the Welsh Government concerning the wearing of face masks; guidance for the public is available here, and for premises managers here. It is recommended that this advice is read alongside the guidance Covid 19 Churches Risk Assessment Guidance Alert Level 0 which is available on the Church in Wales website

COVID-19: call for papers

The Journal of Church and State has announced a call for papers on “Governments’ Legal Responses and Judicial Reactions during a Global Pandemic: Litigating Religious Freedom in the Time of COVID-19”. Proposals are invited for papers that articulate, examine, and analyse judicial reactions to governments’ responses to the pandemic in different jurisdictions. Papers are expected to use state restrictive measures, international and domestic case law and church documents to support arguments. Proposals must be submitted by 20 November.

We are already committed elsewhere (in fact we’ve just finished the first draft of an article), but there may be readers of this blog who would be interested in responding.

COVID-19: the future

On Sunday 12 September 2021, the Prime Minister set out the Next Steps in the Covid response for England. The headlines issues are:

  • the Government will continue “to remain on vaccines as the first line of defence over the autumn and winter months”;
  • the JCVI final ‘booster’ decision is expected next week; and
  • measures from the Coronavirus Act are expected to be repealed.

On this last point, it is anticipated that there will be a repeal of powers in England that are no longer necessary from the Coronavirus Act, as part of the government’s plan for managing Covid over the autumn and winter. These include:

  • Powers to close-down sectors of the economy, such as business premises, or apply restrictions to events and gatherings.
  • Powers that disrupt education, enabling temporary closure or restricting access to schools, colleges, and childcare.
  • Powers that extend time limits for urgent warrants. Powers to detain infectious people.

“Vital powers from the Act will be retained that are critical to protect and support the public. This includes giving sick pay to those isolating from day one rather than day seven, directing schools to remain open if they close against government guidance, and helping the NHS to get the emergency resource it needs.

Legal requirements will remain for someone to isolate if they test positive, to protect the most vulnerable from infection and to control the spread of variants. The Coronavirus Act is separate from the Public Health Act.”

It is expected that the Prime Minister will hold a press conference “next week”/”shortly” to set out the next steps in the pandemic response.

GDPR: the future

Although not directly concerning “law and religion”, the management of data protection is important to all who hold information specified in the legislation. In May 2018, we posted Parishes and the GDPR, the first of a number of posts on the new legislation. The Church of England’s Parish Resources website has a summary of the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which are relevant to parishes, Data Protection: Parishes and the “GDPR”.

On 10 September 2021, the DCMS issued an open Consultation, Data: a new direction:

“on reforms to create an ambitious, pro-growth and innovation-friendly data protection regime that underpins the trustworthy use of data … outside of the EU, the UK can reshape its approach to regulation and seize opportunities with its new regulatory freedoms, helping to drive growth, innovation and competition across the country”.

The web page includes links to the Consultation document (146 pages) and an Analysis of expected impact, (a mere 26 pages); responses must be made online before 19 November 2021 (no time is specified). There is a summary of the proposals in the Law Society Gazettehere.

This appears to be a high-level document with little direct impact (yet) at the parish level. In the wider context, however, the Government’s desire for reform may be complicated by the fact that in June the European Commission introduced a four-year sunset clause into its data adequacy agreement with the UK and stated that it could withdraw from the agreement at any time if the UK failed adequately to protect the data of EU citizens.

Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011: consultation

The Church of England is consulting on proposed changes to the way it undertakes reorganizations, such as the merging of parishes or managing church buildings no longer needed for regular public worship. At the July 2021 meeting of the General Synod, members approved the consultation paper GS 2222 for the review of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011.

Although discussed by General Synod on Monday 12 July, and has effectively been in the public domain since it was first made available, it is not entirely clear to what extent the consultation has been disseminated beyond General Synod. A summary of the consultation is in our post Church of England Consultation: reorganizations &c.

This important Consultation is wide-ranging, as evident from its 31 questions, here. It closes on 30th September.

Recent guidance from ChurchCare

The HRBA has helpfully summarized recent guidance notes from the Church of England on the ChurchCare website. These include:

These have been added to our ChurchCare Guidance Notes – Quick Links which, we find, obviates some of the scrolling and guesswork when interrogating the Advice and guidance for church buildings page.

Quick links

And finally…

At L&RUK we are more than aware of the many changes of legislation and guidance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The implementation of these changes at parish level has been summarized by Archdruid Eileen in The Minister is Tired.

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