Why I voted to allow same sex couples to get married 06/02/2013 17:35:00
Yesterday, the House of Commons debated the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which - as the name implies - would allow same sex couples to get married but not require any religious group to conduct such marriages.
I sat through the whole debate and was called to speak near the end. I've had some nice feedback, both from those who agreed with what I had to say and those who take the opposite view - Ladbrokes have even absurdly started offering odds on me being the next Leader of the Conservative Party apparently! Anyway, you can judge for yourself:
Because so many MPs wanted to speak, we only had four minutes each so for those who are interested in the issue there's a few other things I would add.
First, a plea for sympathy: being an MP isn't easy. You're meant to represent the people living in your constituency. But how are you meant to do that? On any given issue, some of my constituents will want me to vote for what is being proposed, others will want me to vote against.
On this issue, opinion polls suggest that more of my constituents support same sex marriage than oppose it. 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 (which is why some people are surprised when I tell them more people are in favour than against - most of us tend to socialise with people of the same age and background, so if you're passionately opposed chances are most of your friends are too).
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.
• 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;
• they argue that the Government has no mandate to introduce this change;
• they worry that some people eg teachers will end up having to promote same-sex marriage or face legal action/the sack; and
• they worry that this is the thin end of the wedge and their church, mosque, temple or synagogue will end up having to marry same sex couples too.
These are serious objections that deserve an answer. Let’s take them in turn.
Why is change necessary given that we already have civil partnerships?
There’s an obvious argument of principle – civil partnerships may give same sex couples very similar legal rights, but some sex couples want to exchange the same vows as my wife Karen and I, be part of the same institution.
I held a public meeting to listen to my constituents' views on this issue back in May and during the 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.
I believe that marriage is a huge force for good in our society. 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, provided there is protection for religious groups that don’t want to conduct such marriages (see below) why wouldn’t we want to extend it to same sex couples?
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 marriage. Prior to 1836, a legal marriage had to take place in a religious setting and over time we’ve made it much easier to get divorced and we’ve allowed divorcees to remarry.
What mandate does the Government have to introduce this change?
It’s true that this proposal didn’t appear in the Conservative Party manifesto, but the Contract for Equalities, published alongside our manifesto, set out clearly that we would consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage. In any case, governments have always done things that weren’t mentioned in their manifestos as well as delivering their manifesto promises.
Won’t some people eg teachers end up having to promote same-sex marriage or face legal action/the sack?
As now, teachers will have to teach the factual position but no-one will be required to promote views which go against their beliefs. They will continue to have the clear right to express their own beliefs in a professional way. Michael Gove wrote about this in The Mail on Sunday at the weekend. This is what he had to say:
“I want to reassure teachers today because so many of our best, and wisest, teachers are people of deep religious faith. Some of the schools I most admire are faith schools and their success is inextricably bound up with their religious ethos. If I thought any legislation, however well-intentioned, would make life more difficult for our great teachers and great schools I wouldn’t support it. I have complete confidence in the protection our law offers freedom of conscience and speech”.
Isn’t this just the thin end of the wedge - any law that Parliament passes will be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and churches, mosques, temples and synagogues will end up being forced to conduct same sex marriages?
I was brought up as a Catholic - I used to go to Our Lady of the Annunciation on Bingham Road. I wouldn’t have voted for the Bill if I thought for a moment that there was a chance of Catholic churches - or any other religious group that doesn't believe in same sex marriage - being forced to conduct such marriages. Freedom of religion is one of the most basic human rights.
I’ve looked at this very closely and there are five 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 those churches that won't remarry divorcees to do so;
- third, some European countries have introduced same sex marriage along the lines proposed by the Government and there hasn’t been a successful challenge forcing churches in those countries that don’t wish to do so to conduct such marriages;
- fourth, Baroness Kennedy QC, Lord Lester QC and Lord Pannick QC, some of the most eminent human rights lawyers in the country, have supported the Government's view saying that it is "simply inconceivable that the Court would require a faith group to conduct same sex marriages in breach of its own doctrines"; and
- fifth, the Church of England, which opposes this change, nonetheless says "we do not believe that this [the Church being forced to conduct marriages against its will] is realistic".
If you need any further reassurance I would add this: in the highly unlikely event that the ECtHR did uphold a challenge, I would support us withdrawing from the Convention. It would be completely unacceptable for a religious group that did not wish to do so to be forced to conduct same sex marriages.
But freedom of religion works both ways. Just as it would be wrong for a religious group that did not wish to do so to be forced to conduct same sex marriages, it is equally wrong that those religious groups (e.g. the Unitarian Church, some liberal synagogues) that do want to conduct same-sex marriages are currently prevented from doing so. Rabbi Julia Neuberger recently wrote:
"I have heard a number of religious leaders saying that their religious liberty will be fatally compromised by this proposal, that they will be forced to do something that their conscience cannot bear. I ask these people of sincere religious faith to look at this from our point of view. At the moment, I am legally prevented from doing something that my conscience tells me should not only be permitted, but positively celebrated".
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 that Karen and I exchanged and to be part of the same institution that is part of the fabric of our society.
Finally a word about the politics. Some of the people who contacted me said that if I didn’t vote the right way they wouldn’t be able to vote for me at the next election. They are perfectly entitled to say so and vote as they wish, but I based my decision on how to vote last night on what I thought was the right thing to do, not some selfish calculation of what was in my electoral advantage. What kind of example would that have set to my children?
If you are unhappy with the way I voted, I am sorry; it is impossible to please everyone. You will have to reflect on how to vote next time. I hope however you will at least accept that I have thought very long and hard about this issue, taking the time to listen to the concerns of those who are opposed and think about how they can be addressed; and that you will look at my wider record as a hardworking local MP.