With permission I would like to make a statement on the Government proposals to enable same-sex couples to marry, I will be placing a copy of the consultation response in the libraries of both houses.
Importance of Marriage
Not so long ago, Mr Speaker, talk of marriage as one of the building blocks of society was dismissed by some as out of date.
Of course, those of us in this House who have taken a closer interest know that marriage remains something most people aspire to.
So, far from being a peripheral issue, the future of marriage is something that should concern us all.
Today we are setting out how the Government will extend marriage to same sex couples.
This is a consultation that has been the subject of much debate both within the House and outside it. I am immensely grateful to the many Honourable members who have taken the time to discuss these proposals with me, adding their voices to the 19 petitions received by the Government and record 228,000 individuals and organisations who responded to the consultation.
For some, this is a contentious, radical reform; or a reform too far.
But the historical facts show that over the generations marriage has had a long history of evolution. In the nineteenth century inequalities prevented Catholics, Atheists, Quakers and many others from marrying except in the Anglican Church. When this was changed, was that accepted without protest? No.
In the 20th Century, when the law was changed to recognise married men and married women as equal before law, was that accepted without fierce protest? No
In each century Parliament has acted sometimes radically to ensure marriage reflects our society to keep it relevant, meaningful.
Marriage is not static; it has evolved and Parliament has chosen to act over the centuries to make marriage more equal and fair.
We now face another such moment, another such chance in this new century.
For me, extending marriage to same sex couples will strengthen, not weaken this vital institution.
The response I am publishing today makes clear that we will enable same-sex couples to get married through a civil ceremony.
We will enable those religious organisations who wish to conduct same-sex marriages to be able to do so. This will be on a similar “opt-in” basis as is available to them for civil partnerships. This is important for the obvious reason that it would be wrong to ban organisations who wish to conduct same-sex marriages from doing so.
I am under no illusions, Mr Speaker. I am fully aware that the proposals set out today to allow same-sex couples to marry is a contentious matter. I am also clear that there should be complete respect for religious organisations and individual religious leaders who do not wish to marry same-sex couples.
The Government has to balance the importance of treating all couples equally and fairly with respect for religious organisations’ right to their beliefs.
We need to be fair to same-sex couples. The state should not be banning them from such a great institution
Equally we need to be fair to people of faith. Our religious protections will ensure that fairness is at the heart of our proposals. Churches have a right to fight for and articulate their beliefs and to be under no compulsion to conduct same-sex marriages. As the PM has said, we are one hundred per cent clear, if there is any church or any synagogue or any mosque that doesn’t want to conduct a gay marriage it will not, absolutely must not, be forced to hold it.
That is why as part of our response we will have a quadruple lock, putting into English law clear and unambiguous protections.
I will go into the detail of these locks but before I do I want to reiterate my comments yesterday concerning Europe. I know many honourable members are worried that European Courts will force religious organisations to conduct same-sex marriage.
The law is complex but that complexity should be no excuse for misunderstanding the facts.
The case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the rights as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights put protection of religious belief in this matter beyond doubt.
The Government’s legal position confirmed that, with appropriate legislative drafting, the chance of a successful legal challenge through domestic or European courts is negligible. I have therefore asked the Government’s lawyers to ensure this is the case here.
Our response sets out the clear safeguards - a “quadruple lock” of measures to protect religious organisations.
The Government has always been absolutely clear that no religious organization will be forced to conduct same-sex marriages. This system of locks will iron clad the protection in law, adding to the existing protections in European legislation, so that those who do not want to conduct same sex marriages will never have to.
First, we will write 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 this to happen on their premises.
Secondly, I will amend the Equalities Act so no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple or allowing their premises to be used for this purpose;
Thirdly, the 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 then each individual Minister will have to opt in. Therefore, if a religious organisation has chosen not to conduct same sex marriage, then none of its Ministers will be able to. However, if an organisation has chosen to do so then, individual Ministers are still under no compulsion to conduct a same-sex marriage unless they wish to do so.
Finally, because the Church of England and Wales have explicitly stated that they do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages the legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples. Mr Speaker, this provision recognises and protects the unique and Established nature of these churches. The church’s canon law will also continue to ban the marriage of same-sex couples. Therefore, even if these 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.
Mr Speaker, I feel it’s important to also directly address other concerns raised by religious organisations.
Other legal cases including provision of services such as bed and breakfast or the wearing of religious symbols have no bearing on the legal situation regarding marriage. This is because for most Christian organisations marriage is a sacrament. It is at the heart of religious belief. There is clear protection under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and there is clarity in case law that the European Court of Human Rights considers same-sex marriage a matter for each member state.
Faith has underpinned British society for centuries and it is as important to me as equality for all before the law. These proposals will allow both to co-exist without threat or challenge to the other.
People of faith hold views which must be respected. That is why I have always been absolutely clear, that I would never introduce a Bill which encroaches or threatens religious freedoms.
It is with these strongly held views in mind that the proposals presented today have been designed.
Mr Speaker, I believe these proposals strike the right balance, protecting important religious freedoms, while ensuring that same-sex couples have the same freedom to marry as opposite sex couples.
By making it available to everyone, we will ensure that marriage remains a vibrant institution.
Our changes will allow more people to make life long commitments and enjoy the benefits of an institution that has for centuries lain at the heart of our society.