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Gay-marriage Bill faces new Commons hurdles

17 May 2013

PA

"No demand": Hammond

"No demand": Hammond

THERE IS a "real sense of anger" among many married people that the Government thinks that it can change the definition of marriage, the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, said on Thursday. 

Tim Loughton, another Conservative MP, denied that the amendment that he has tabled to the Government's Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is designed to wreck it.

Mr Loughton's amendment to the Bill aims to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. The Government is opposed to including the change in the Bill, fearing that this could lead to a delay in its implementation. The Bill will be debated at Report Stage in the House of Commons on Monday and Tuesday.

On Thursday night, the Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, said that the Government would offer MPs "the opportunity to have a review of this area, rather than legislating now without the required evidence".    

Mr Loughton voted against the Bill at its Second Reading. He told BBC Radio 4's Today on Friday morning that, even if his amendment was passed, he would "still have a problem" with same-sex marriage. He denied that this meant that the amendment was an attempt to "spoil the Bill".

Writing on the Conservative Home website, Mr Loughton said that his amendment would promote "a more pragmatic and contemporary form of family values, even if they do not amount to full-blown traditional marriage".

Speaking on Question Time  on BBC1, Mr Hammond, said of the Bill: "There is a real sense of anger among many people who are married that any government thinks it has the ability to change the definition of an institution like marriage."

He said: "I have just never felt that this is what we should be focusing on. . . There was no huge demand for this, and we didn't need to spend a lot of parliamentary time and upset vast numbers of people in order to do this."

The Bill was published in January ( News, 25 January) and passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons by 400 votes to 175 in February (News, 8 February). It has since been examined at Committee Stage by MPs, who have received evidence from church figures (News, 15 February, 22 February).

The Conservative MP David Burrowes, a leading opponent of the Bill, and a member of Christians in Parliament, wrote on the Conservative Home website on Monday that "not one word" of the Bill was amended at Committee Stage, despite the Bill Committee's having sat 13 times. This was despite "numerous amendments" tabled by Mr Burrowes "and three other dissenters" on the Committee.

Nevertheless, Mr Burrowes and colleagues have tabled several amendments to be considered by MPs at Report Stage. These include an amendment ensuring "that designated religious schools are not required . . . to promote views of marriage that are contrary to their religious beliefs, whilst accepting that they will teach the existence of the new legal definition of marriage". Mr Burrowes said that the Bill as it stood did not "explicitly protect" the freedom of religious schools not to promote same-sex marriage.

Other amendments include one preventing marriage registrars' "being compelled to solemnise same-sex marriage against their consciences", and one clarifying "that merely discussing or criticising same-sex marriage is not, on its own, a form of discrimination for the purpose of equality law".

The latter amendment, Mr Burrowes said, sought to prevent "disproportionate" action against employees who criticised same-sex marriage. He referred to the case of Adrian Smith, a housing manager who was demoted for posting a comment on Facebook opposing gay marriage (News, 28 October 2011, 23 November 2012).

A briefing issued by the Church of England Parliamentary Unit on Thursday reiterates opposition to the Bill. Besides the concerns outlined by Mr Burrowes, the briefing expresses agreement with the Government's view that the Bill should not be amended to introduce civil partnerships for couples of the opposite sex. This would "introduce further confusion about the place of marriage in society". It also agrees with the Government's opposition to introducing a "celebrant-based system" for marriages which would enable Humanists, among others, to conduct weddings.

Mrs Miller told the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights on Tuesday that the Government had tabled an amendment to the Bill to protect chaplains employed by organisations such as hospitals, the armed force, and universities from being compelled to officiate at same-sex marriages.

"Hospital chaplains will be protected in exactly the same way as any other clergy, and should not be forced to conduct marriages of same sex," she said.

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