I am one of 19 leading Conservatives who have written to The Sunday Telegraph in support of Freedom to Marry, a group campaigning to win the freedom of same sex couples to marry and to ensure that religious freedom is protected at the same time.
Opinion polls show that more people support same sex marriage than oppose it but that this is an issue that most people don’t feel strongly about one way or the other. However, they also show notable differences of opinion between different groups in society with older people and people of faith, perhaps unsurprisingly, more likely to be opposed. And as I know from my inbox and postbag, some of those who oppose the idea feel very strongly about it.
Some have sought to dismiss such people as nothing more than bigots, but the vast majority of the people who have contacted me have made it clear that they support equal legal rights for same sex couples; however, they question why this change is necessary given that we already have civil partnerships, they don’t like the Government changing the meaning of the word marriage and they worry that this is the thin end of the wedge and their church, mosque or synagogue will end up having to marry same sex couples too. These are serious objections that deserve an answer. I held a public meeting about this issue back in May to understand them in detail and I believe that they can be addressed.
Let’s take them in turn.
First, why is change necessary?
There’s an obvious argument of principle - telling same sex couples “You don’t need to get married, you’ve got civil partnerships” isn’t so different from when black people in the Deep South used to be told “You don’t need to sit in this part of the bus, you’ve got your own seats at the back”.
During my public meeting someone also made a good practical point. We all have to fill in all sorts of official forms, many of which ask us our marital status. It is an offence for someone who is in a civil partnership to describe themselves as married so in effect these forms are requiring people to declare their sexuality. Some people may be completely relaxed about this, but others may not.
Finally, there is an irony here. Many of the people who object most strongly to same sex marriage are also the most passionate advocates of marriage as a force for good in our society. On the latter point, I agree with them. The evidence suggests it is the best environment in which to bring up children (though that doesn’t mean that single parents or cohabiting couples can't do a great job - many do) but society benefits from people forming stable, mutually-supporting relationships even if those involved don’t have children - they are likely to be happier and they are less likely to need help from the state if they lose their job or get sick. If marriage is such a good thing, why wouldn’t we want to extend it to same sex couples?
Second, why change the meaning of a long-established word? It is certainly true that this issue would be a lot simpler if we didn’t use the same word to describe a government-established legal contract and a religious sacrament, but that pass was sold a long time ago. The truth is we have continually changed the meaning of the word. Prior to 1836, a legal marriage had to take place in a religious setting. We’ve made it much easier to get divorced and we’ve allowed divorcees to remarry. And if, as some people have suggested to me, marriage is specifically for procreation, why do we allow people who are past child-bearing age to get married?
Third and most importantly, isn’t it the case that this is just the thin end of the wedge, that any law that Parliament passes will be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights and churches, mosques and synagogues will end up being forced to conduct same sex marriages? If, when I’ve seen the Bill and the legal advice from the Attorney General, I think there is a risk of this happening then I won’t vote for the Bill. I hope that the Government will make it clear on the face of the Bill that this law won’t apply to any religious group that doesn’t want to conduct same sex marriages - the right to freedom of religion is just as important as the right of same sex couples to get married and it must be possible in the 21st Century to accommodate both.
And there are three good reasons for believing that there won’t be a successful challenge. First, the European Convention on Human Rights includes the right to freedom of religion, which the Court would have to give significant weight to. Second, for years the law has allowed divorced people to remarry but there has never been a successful challenge forcing say the Catholic Church to remarry divorced people. And third some European countries have introduced same sex marriage and there hasn’t been a successful challenge.
But my main response to those who say to me “My faith doesn’t believe in same sex marriage and it would be wrong for the Government to impose it on us” is to say “I agree - but it would equally wrong for you to prevent those faiths (eg the Unitarian Church) that do want to conduct same-sex marriages from doing so”. The religious freedom argument works both ways. And in this sense, the revised Government proposal that the Prime Minister alluded to on Friday is preferable to the original proposal. The original proposal was to allow same sex civil marriages, but not in any religious setting. The revised proposal - to allow same sex marriage both civil and in any religious setting that wants to, but to protect those who don’t wish to conduct such marriages - better respects the principle of religious freedom, significantly improving the likelihood of resisting any legal challenge.
Provided there is protection for faith groups that take a different view, then, I believe same sex marriage will strengthen society not weaken it. It will allow those who love another human being of the same sex to exchange the same vows as Karen and I exchanged, to be treated equally to us under the law and I will be proud to be one of the MPs who made it happen.
Finally a word about the politics. As I hope is clear from the above, I have thought long and hard about this issue and taken the time to listen to the concerns of those who are opposed. I am voting for it, provided there is protection for religious freedom, because I think it is the right thing to do. But many of the people who have contacted me expressing their concern have argued that it will cost me votes (and to be fair some of the people arguing for same sex marriage have also used electoral arguments) so it would be remiss not to comment on this angle. I think it is very difficult to make judgements about the electoral impact of this decision. The poll I linked to above showed that more people were in favour than against but slightly more people felt strongly against than strongly in favour. In any case, there is strong evidence that people are not very good at predicting what will determine their vote in a couple of years’ time (if they were, politics would be a much simpler business!) But I would make two observations. First, there is a strong feeling that this country is becoming increasingly secular with little regard for people’s faith. Second, for too long our Party has allowed itself to be portrayed as against people - against immigrants, against single mums, against gay and lesbian people. It seems to me that a Conservative Party that stands up for religious freedom but is also for those who love and want to make a public commitment to another human being of the same sex and for a society in which everyone is treated equally under the law would be best placed to win an overall majority at the next Election - and would deserve to do so.