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Gay-marriage Bill passes from the Commons despite rebels

24 May 2013


"Protections for faith": the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller

"Protections for faith": the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller

THEY did not break into song as the New Zealand Parliament did last month, but applause broke out in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, after MPs voted to send the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill to the House of Lords.

MPs approved the Bill at its Third Reading by 366 to 161. But 133 Conservatives voted against the Government, including two Cabinet ministers - the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, and the Wales Secretary, David Jones. Lord Dear, a crossbencher who is expected to lead the opposition to the Bill in the House of Lords, told The Times that he might table a "fatal motion" to kill it off.

On Wednesday, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, who has led the bishops in the House of Lords on the issue, said: "We clearly cannot support the Bill because it is contrary to the Church's historic teaching on the nature of marriage."

He said, however, that he would want to recognise "that the Government has done a great deal to accommodate some of the Church's concerns, and to make it clear that individual clergy cannot be proceeded against by anybody". "Hard work" had been done "to ensure that the Canons of the Church of England will not contravene the civil law of England".

Bishop Stevens said that he intended to seek more concessions from the Government: further guarantees for teachers in church schools "to teach a traditional view of marriage", and a "freedom-of-speech amendment to ensure those who argue for a traditional view of marriage are not treated as if they are in contempt of the law or behaving prejudicially".

The Bill will receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords on 3 June. Bishop Stevens said that the House did not traditionally take a vote at this stage, but that this might happen. Individual bishops would then have to decide how to vote.

The Bill passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons by 400 votes to 175 in February ( News, 8 February).

Before the vote, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, said: "The Government have throughout remained committed to the principle that people should not be excluded from marriage simply because of who they love. . . If the values of marriage are the values on which we want to build our society, they must be available to all, and they must underpin an institution that is available to all couples. . .

"We have a rich tapestry of faith, belief and culture. That is unique - it is part of what makes us British. Those strong traditions will enable same-sex couples to marry."

The Shadow Equalites Minister, Yvette Cooper, said that MPs on both sides of the House felt "proud to support it and to be on the right side of history". Referring to the singing of a Maori love song in the New Zealand Parliament after the legalisation of same-sex marriage there, she suggested "a Eurovision-style chorus of 'Congratulations', or perhaps Abba-style - probably not 'One Man, One Woman', but certainly 'I do, I do, I do, I do, I do'."

Opposition in the House to the Bill was led by David Burrowes, the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, and a member of Christians in Parliament, who sat on the Bill Committee. He urged members who believed in "traditional marriage and in liberty" to vote against it.

"What unites the opposition to the Bill is an unshakeable belief that will not accept the state's redefinition of marriage, and will recognise only the distinctive value of marriage as the bringing together of one man and one woman." He warned that those who disagreed with the Bill risked "vilification and discrimination".

On Monday, Mr Burrowes pushed three amendments to the Bill. All were defeated, but secured the support of many Conservatives.

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

A minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Hugh Robertson, 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."

The amendment was lost by 150 votes to 340. More than 100 Conservative MPs voted for the amendment, including Iain Duncan Smith.

The campaign director of Coalition for Marriage, Colin Hart, said on Monday: "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 Robertson argued, however, that such protection was unnecessary: "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 100 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 opted 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-sex marriage, after Mr Robertson promised that the Government would review and amend, in the House of Lords, guidance for schools.

On Tuesday, Mrs Miller sought to reassure those opposed to same-sex marriage: "No religious organisation or individual minister will be forced to conduct same-sex marriages if they choose not to do so, and nor will religious organisations or individual ministers be forced to have same-sex marriages conducted on their premises. . .

"The Government are also clear that the Bill does not prevent people, whether at work or outside, from expressing their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. That is their right. Teachers will still be able to express their personal beliefs about marriage, as long as they do so sensitively and appropriately."

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, said that the Government had "constructively engaged" with the Church of England, and that the Bill "has at its heart protections for faith groups"; these were "based on buildings".

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

Mrs Miller warned that the amendment risked delaying the implementation of the Bill.

Sir Tony 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.

On Tuesday, an amendment to introduce "Humanist marriage" was withdrawn by the Opposition, after the Attorney-General claimed that it would render the Bill "incompatible with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights".

Sir Tony said that the Church of England was "strongly opposed" to the proposal, "not because we do not love or like Humanists, but simply because it would unpick the locks in the Bill" which protected faith groups.

Christians on both sides of the debate spoke during the course of the two days. Jeffrey Donaldson, of the Democratic Unionist party, said: "Our opposition to the redefinition of marriage is not born of prejudice. It is not born of homophobia. It is born of a deep sense of our Christian faith, and I hope that that can be respected."

Stuart Andrew, Conservative MP for Pudsey, said: "Religious faith is not just the preserve of heterosexuals. One of my hardest challenges was balancing my sexuality with my faith. It has taken me years to do that, and, as I said at the time, some of those battles were the hardest and darkest in my life."

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

On Tuesday, Tiggy Sagar from Christians for Equal Marriage UK said: "We look to an eventual reconciling of the various Christian denominations with all those who have felt excluded and alienated due to their sexual orientation. The Church should realise that there are many people who would be part of church communities, were they to feel more welcome."

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