LONDON, England - A law permitting civil partnership ceremonies in the United Kingdom passed the House of Lords this week.
Now, church leaders are worried they'll face prosecution for refusing to provide the services for same-sex couples.
The British government says religious organizations will not be forced to act against their beliefs.
Last minute amendments to the equality bill included a provision for denominations like the Church of England to be able to prevent ministers from going against church policy and registering civil partnerships in a church.
The Evangelical Alliance, which represents thousands of churches across the U.K., called on the government to guarantee churches the right to freely choose whether or not to hold civil partnerships without risk of future penalty.
Don Horrocks, head of Public Affairs for the Evangelical Alliance, says he's relieved the government has been listening to their concerns.
"Baroness Royal, who is the leader of the House of Lords and is in charge of the equality bill, went out of her way to make it clear that it was not possible for ministers of religion to be the subject of anti-discrimination claims for refusing to carry out a civil partnership on their premises," he said.
So does Horrocks believe independent churches could still be sued for refusing to take up the new legal powers to register civil partnerships?
"Legal advice has been received and suggests there is a possibility of future claims, but there is a consensus among legal advisors that there is a very strong defence and that such a claim is most unlikely to be successful," he said.
However Jonathan Bartley, director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, has given a warm welcome to the new legislation.
"At its heart this is really an issue of religious liberty. It's about saying 'yes there are a diverse range of Christian views on this issue,'" he said. "But if a Christian or another religious person comes forward and says 'I believe according to my faith and my conscience that a civil partnership is the way that God is leading me,' then they shouldn't be prohibited by law from doing that on a Christian basis."
Bartley says legal changes need to go much further to respond to the social diversity of relationships and recognize the diversity of religious convictions around ideas of marriage.
"You should be able to have religious ceremonies celebrating your relationship, your marriage, your commitment as a Christian, your covenant for life with the other person and then you should be able to go to the state and say 'I want to register this in law' and have that as a separate arrangement," he explained. "Now as the situation stands, because of the established Church of England, you can't have that in this country. When you get married in a church it's also a legal act and the two are run together. I'm saying it's time to actually separate out the two."
But as groups like Ekklesia welcome this new legislation, church leaders remain concerned, not only about whether this bill will fully protect them from legal consequences if they refuse to register civil partnerships, but also the continuing threat to the institution of marriage.
*Originally aired on March 26, 2010.