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Minister denies haste on same-sex-marriage Bill

01 February 2013


ONE of the ministers responsible for steering the same-sex-marriage legislation through the House of Commons denied this week that the Government was acting hastily or without a mandate.

Speaking on Monday, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, and Women and Equalities, Helen Grant (right), said that she did not think that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill had been "rushed".

"The consultation on this matter actually started in March 2012, and the consultation itself was comprehensive. We received something in the region of 228,000 responses to that consultation, including 19 petitions. The consultation was open, fair, [and] transparent. Every- thing was looked at very carefully indeed."

In response to the charge that the Bill lacked a democratic mandate, Mrs Grant said that the Conservative Party had published its intentions to legislate for same-sex marriage in the Contract for Equalities, which was issued alongside its 2010 election manifesto.

Mrs Grant, who is a solicitor and a practising Anglican, said that there had been "ongoing consultation and talks" with representatives of the Church of England, and other religious organisations, about the Bill.

It makes provisions for religious organisations to opt in to perform same-sex marriages. But Mrs Grant said that it provided robust protection for individual ministers to refuse to perform same-sex marriages, even if the religious body to which they belonged decided to opt in.

"And it further goes on to say - and the mechanics for this are through an amendment to the Equality Act - that no religious organisation or minister can be effectively taken successfully to court for discrimination, harassment, or victimisation for refusing to perform a same-sex marriage."

Press reports this week suggested that a significant number of Conservative MPs were likely to vote against the Bill, as well as some government ministers. But Mrs Grant said that she believed that the Bill would pass through the Commons and the Lords. "It's a really important piece of legislation, and a lot of people care deeply about it."

Mrs Grant objected to claims, made by some press commentators and MPs, that the Bill would pre-vent teachers' expressing traditional Christian beliefs about marriage.

"Teachers are, of course, allowed, and must express their own religious beliefs, which may well be that marriage is between a man and a woman. There will be no obligation on them as teachers to promote same-sex marriage, but obviously we would not expect them to be ex-pressing their views in a disrespectful or unpleasant or hateful manner."

THE Government's same-sex-marriage Bill, published last Friday, was brought forward "at speed" and without a "clear mandate", the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, has said.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was presented to Parliament on Thursday of last week. It is due to have its Second Reading next Tuesday, when it will be debated by MPs.

On Friday, a briefing paper was published by the Parliamentary Unit of the Mission and Public Affairs Division and the Legal Office at Church House. 

The Bill contains a "quadruple lock" of measures that, the Government says, are designed to protect religious freedom, including one that states that no religious organisation should be compelled to marry same-sex couples ( News, 7 December).

The Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, said that the Bill made clear that the Church of England's and the Church in Wales's duty to marry parishioners "does not extend to same-sex couples". This would "protect them from legal challenge". But if the Churches' governing bodies decided to marry same-sex couples in future, "they will of course be able to."

Bishop Stevens said in a statement from Church House that church officials had "continued to raise questions about whether it is wise or appropriate to legislate at speed on a matter of such fundamental importance to society, when the proposal was not in any major party manifesto, the Coalition Agreement, or the last Queen's Speech. 

"The lack of a clear mandate and the absence of an overwhelming public consensus for change ought at least to give pause for thought."

Bishop Stevens reiterated the C of E "view, set out in doctrine and canon law, that marriage is a union between one man and one woman".

The Church would continue to seek "to press serious questions about the implications for wider society, for the significance of procreation and upbringing of children as part of the purpose of marriage, the effect on teaching in schools, and the work of chaplains and others with religious convictions who are involved in public service delivery".

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry MP, told MPs last week that church officials and the Government's Equalities Office had discussed the drafting of the Bill during a series of conversations over the past few weeks.

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has also met government ministers to express concerns that the Church in Wales would be prevented from opting in to perform same-sex marriages in the future. As a result, there was now "provision in the Bill for the law to be altered without the need for further primary legislation by Parliament", a statement from the Church in Wales said.

The Bill, which will be subject to a free vote by MPs, is expected to gain the support of a majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. But it is likely to encounter opposition on the Conservative back benches, and among some government ministers. MPs such as David Burrowes, the chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Edward Leigh, who is a Roman Catholic, are among those who have spoken out against the legislation in recent months.

The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, is another opponent of the Bill, although this week he rebutted press reports that he had compared same-sex marriage to incest.

A briefing by Roman Catholic bishops, published on Tuesday, urged MPs "to oppose this legislation.

"It said that the Bill "fundamentally seeks to break the existing legal link between the institution of marriage and sexual exclusivity, loyalty, and responsibility for the children of the marriage".

Stonewall, the gay-rights campaign group, has urged its supporters to lobby their MPs to support the Bill. Christian supporters of same-sex marriage have set up a Facebook group, encouraging "churches to pray for marriage equality in their Sunday services".

Campaigners against the Bill, including the Christian Institute and CARE, have also encouraged churches to hold a "national day of prayer for marriage" on Sunday.


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