The House of Commons has a free vote today on whether same sex couples can extend their union to marriage. I have met members of the Church of England and Catholic Church and other denominations. I fully respect their views, and accept that this is not the vote that some of my constituents would wish me to make, although many have argued I should support the Bill. But this is a draft Bill that has now been significantly improved.
There are specific exemptions for churches who do not wish to be a party to this process.
I am satisfied that religious freedoms have been protected in the legislation. No religious institution can be forced to conduct gay weddings.
This will be secured by a quadruple lock:
1) The Government has written on to the face of the Bill a declaration that no religious organisation, or individual Minister, can be forced to marry same-sex couples or to permit that to happen on their premises.
2) The Government will amend the Equality Act 2010 so that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual Ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple or for refusing to allow their premises to be used for this purpose.
3) The proposed legislation will make it unlawful for religious organisations or their Ministers to marry same-sex couples unless the organisation has expressly opted to do so. As part of this lock, a religious organisation will have to opt in as a whole, and each individual Minister will then have to opt in too. Therefore, if a religious organisation has chosen not to conduct same-sex marriage, none of its Ministers will be able to do so. However, if an organisation has chosen to conduct same-sex marriage, individual Ministers are still under no compulsion to conduct one unless they wish to do so.
4) The legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples. That provision recognises and protects the unique and established nature of those Churches. The Church’s canon law will also continue to ban the marriage of same-sex couples. Therefore, even if those institutions wanted to conduct same-sex marriage, it would require a change to primary legislation at a later date and a change to canon law—additional protection that cannot be breached. This particular legislation recognises and protects the opposition that those institutions have expressed to same-sex marriage.
Indeed there are several religious groups – including Liberal Judaism, Quakers, and the Unitarian and Free Christian churches – that have welcomed this proposal.
Ah, say the doubters, but the European Court of Human Rights may say something rather different?
I do not accept that. The Bill has been drafted to ensure that can't happen. I am also much reassured by the opinion of the Lords Pannick and Lester and Baroness Kennedy – who are far better Human Rights lawyers than I ever was – that the law is clear that there is:
- No obligation upon states to provide access to same sex marriage
- That sovereign parliaments retain control and that
- Article 9 of the ECHR convention provides all the protection to faith groups that they could possibly need
Has the world stopped elsewhere?
Equal marriage has been introduced in many other countries, including Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland. So far as I know it has not undermined straight marriage at all.
Are we really going to say that we do not believe that a same sex couple are worthy of the very same privileges and honour of marriage that I, as a straight man, can enjoy?
For me: this is about Commitment:
I have spent 20 years as a lawyer, councillor, and now MP seeing examples of the difficulties that occur when couples fail to commit, and fail to bring up children in the right way. My experiences in prisons has shown ample examples of what happens when adults let children fall by the wayside.
Yet when 2 people show a desire to commit in the most serious way possible – are we to deny them this merely because they are of the same sex? We know that married relationships tend to have greater longevity and stability than other forms of relationship, because marriage is based on a deep personal and public commitment between two people. Married couples are twice as likely to stay together as cohabiting couples.
We should be applauding couples that are willing to take the very serious step of committing to each other for life and not standing in their way. Don’t take my word for it:
Rabbi Julia Neuberger:
“It is precisely because marriage is such a uniquely important institution that we should ensure that all couples who want to get married can do so, regardless of their sexuality. I will continue to pray for the day when I am able to officiate at the weddings of gay couples, in just the same way as I do for those who are straight.”
Finally: some insist that equal marriage would undermine the institution of marriage, which has traditionally been between a man and a woman. How would my gay friends marrying their partner undermine the marriage of my parents, my brother, or myself?
UPDATE: the House of Commons voted 400 to 175 in support of same sex Marriage. If you want to
read my speech [we were limited to 4 minutes] go here: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2013-02-05b.125.0&s=speaker%3A24962#g225.1
You can also watch the debate on Democracy Live.
I will write back to every person who lobbied me over the last 2 weeks attempting to answer their questions and arguments but bear with us on that.