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Gay-marriage Bill passes latest stage

21 May 2013

DEMOTIX

Vigil: Christian protesters gather out side the Palace of Westminster, on Monday 

Vigil: Christian protesters gather out side the Palace of Westminster, on Monday 

THE Government defeated the attempts by a prominent Christian MP to amend the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill on Monday evening, but it witnessed a rebellion by more than 100 members of the Conservative party.

David Burrowes, the Conservative MP for Enfield, Southgate and a member of Christians in Parliament, pushed three amendments to the vote, warning that "there is a chill wind blowing for those who uphold traditional marriage".

The first vote was held on a "conscientious objection" amendment to ensure that registrars could not be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages.

Hugh Robertson, a minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, said that it would not be "appropriate or right" to allow the opt-out: "Like it or not, they are public servants who should carry out the will of Parliament, and allowing exemptions according to conscience in my view sets a difficult precedent." He said that consultation with the national panel for registrars had revealed "absolutely no concerns whatsoever about conscience".

The amendment was lost by 150 votes to 340. However, more than 100 Conservative MPs voted for the amendment, including Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, and Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary.

Colin Hart, campaign director of Coalition for Marriage, said: "The growing rebellion against the Bill shows that we are winning the argument and gaining momentum."

MPs also rejected, by 339 votes to 148, an amendment designed to ensure that "a belief regarding the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman" enjoyed the status of a "protected characteristic of religion or belief" under the Equality Act (2010). Mr Burrowes cited the example 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). Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, expressed similar concerns, seeking "reassurance and a degree of legal protection for both employers and employees who express their views in a reasonable way".

Mr Robertson said that: "Philosophical beliefs are protected if they are genuinely held, and we are entirely confident that the belief that marriage should be only between a man and a woman meets those criteria per cent."

Mr Burrowes also pushed to the vote an amendment seeking to protect churches other than the Church of England from claims of discrimination if they opt out of conducting same-sex marriages. This was lost by 163 votes to 321.

The Government did offer to provide "the safeguards that are necessary to meet colleagues' concerns, where those concerns are justified". This included tabling an amendment to ensure that ministers of religion employed by secular organisations who did not wish to conduct same-sex marriages would be protected from claims under the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Burrowes withdrew an amendment designed to ensure that schools were not under any duty to "promote or endorse" same-marriage, after Mr Robertson promised that the Government would review and amend guidance for schools and "consider all available means - including an amendment if necessary - to put the issue beyond any doubt" in the House of Lords.

The Government defeated an amendment, tabled by the Conservative MP Tim Loughton, to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. However, it relied on the support of the Opposition to do so.

The Cuture Secretary, Maria Miller, warned that the amendment risked delaying the implementation of the Bill.

Sir Tony Baldry said that it was "difficult to see how extending or setting up a rival competition to marriage will enhance the concept of marriage", and stated that  the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England "strongly oppose" the proposal.

Kate Green, the shadow equalities minister, said that, while the Oppopsition was in favour of the principle of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex, it shared concerns about "unwarranted delay". The Opposition would support the Government's proposal of a review of the policy, provided that it was "conducted very swiftly".

Mr Loughton, who opposes same-sex marriage, vehemently denied that his amendment was a "wrecking" one, and warned: "We are in danger of being party to a last-minute stitch-up between those on the Front Benches." His amendment was lost by 70 votes to  375.

Christians on both sides of the debate spoke during the session. Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat MP, said: "There is still a lot of prejudice to confront. Only yesterday a member of a church in my constituency told me that anyone who is gay is defective." However, as chair of the board of governors of a Church of England primary school and trustee of a Church of England secondary school, he sought "a little reassurance" on guidance for schools.

The debate took place shortly after  the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted to allow congregations to call a minister in a civil partnership. 

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