LONDON – Legislation to allow same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom has passed the second reading in the House of Commons Tuesday by 400 votes to 175. Amendments to the Bill are now to be discussed and voted in the committee stage and then debated in the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2013, if passed, would allow same-sex couples to get married in both civil ceremonies and religious ceremonies where a particular denomination has agreed to provide such services. The government have said the Bill contains a “quadruple lock”, four separate measures to protect the religious freedom of those who do not agree with same-sex marriages on religious grounds.
Before the debate…
The government’s proposals have caused “growing discord” within the Conservative Party according to a letter written by a group of Conservative local constituency chairmen. The letter, which was delivered to Downing Street on Sunday, claimed the policy would cause “significant damage to the Conservative Party in the run-up to the 2015 election” and “resignations from the party are beginning to multiply”.
The Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley criticised media focus on the letter sent to Downing Street, telling the BBC the importance of the letter was overblown: “There are, say, 630 associations, there’s now two active officers for each one, that’s over 1200. Twenty five past and present officers went to Downing St — 25 out of over 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 — doesn’t strike me as newsworthy.”
Bottomley said he believes the majority of people in Britain are supportive of same-sex marriage although older people tend to be against it, and said the legislation is “not going to be a big deal”.
On Monday, in response to the letter sent to Downing Street, another letter from fifty grassroots activists within the Conservative Party including constituency chairmen and the chairman of Conservative Future, a group for Conservative supporters aged under 30, argued Conservative MPs should support the Bill: “Please do not allow the impression that all Conservative Party activists are opposed to gay marriage. Many of us strongly agree with the proposal. Nor is it true that gay marriage has no mandate. David Cameron made his support for it clear in his first conference speech as party leader, and won loud applause. It was in the party’s equalities manifesto at the last election.”
The letter said opposition to same-sex marriage would “risk alienating the voters we will need in 2015” and argued the plans have broad support from the wider public.
In response to criticism from within the Conservative Party, Maria Miller, the government minister responsible for the Bill, wrote an editorial in The Times defending the proposals. Miller wrote: “The proposals for change are straightforward — if a couple love each other, then the state should not stop them getting married unless there is good reason — and being gay is not reason enough.”
Miller defended the bill from accusations it would infringe on religious freedom: “This bill is about choice. It is about giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so, while protecting the rights of those who don’t agree.”
The Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries, confirmed on Monday in a post for the blog ConservativeHome that she plans to vote against the Bill, saying the Bill fails to make heterosexual and gay couples equal because the Bill does not require gay couples “to make any commitment to faithfulness whatsoever in the way straight couples are required to” and because there is no requirement for consummation. She also argued it is politically unwise for the Conservative Party, claiming loss of support “could lose us as many as 100 seats”. Dorries said Labour’s introduction of civil partnerships was “the right thing” but the Labour Party would not have supported same-sex marriage because it would cost them support from Catholics. She argued that if Conservatives push for same-sex marriage to become law, Labour would then not have to take a political hit for passing the Bill.
The Conservative Party activist Tim Montgomerie contradicted claims that the Conservatives would face a drastic drop in support, claiming a YouGov survey shows it won’t affect voter intentions: “the effect might well be negative in the short-term but — AT WORST — it will reduce the Tory vote from about its current 34% to 33%”.
Conservative blogger and radio host Iain Dale — who is also openly gay — argued on his blog that a number of the opponents in the Tory ranks are themselves in the closet and may face outing attempts by gay rights campaigners. On ITV, Dale said he had looked at a list of MPs who intend to vote against the Bill on the website of Campaign for Equal Marriage: “I note with interest the names of several MPs who most people in the Westminster Village know to be closet gays. And I note also the names of two supposedly straight MPs who I know to be conducting gay affairs at the moment. I don’t believe in ‘outing’ anyone, but because of the rank hypocrisy there will be others who will take a different view.”
Before the debate, Labour leader Ed Miliband said he will vote “proudly” for equal marriage: “I don’t think that the person you love should determine the rights you have. That’s why I’ll be voting for equal marriage, along with the rest of the shadow cabinet.”
Liberal Democrats committed to supporting the policy. A notable exception among the Liberal Democrats is John Pugh MP who said in a letter to his constituents published on Monday he will vote against the Bill because he believes “it achieves none of its objectives and weakens the link between marriage and the family”.
In the run up to the debate, MPs claim to have received emails they characterised as “vitriolic”, “appalling”, and “unpleasant” from both supporters and opponents of the Bill. The Conservative MP Angie Bray said: “You get emails from one side saying you’re morally deficient if you vote no and emails threatening hell fire and brimstone if you vote yes. It has frankly been an ill-tempered debate on both sides.”
Some MPs have said negative emails from opponents have prompted them to support the Bill. An anonymous MP told The Independent: “Quite a few of us who were considering abstaining will vote in favour of gay marriage because of the unreasonable nature of the emails we have been receiving. Some of the emails I’ve had are simply appalling and I’m fed up with it.”
Conservative MP David Burrowes, who opposes the Bill, said unpleasant messages have also come from supporters of the Bill: “I’ve had death threats, hostility and hate mail. My children have even been told that their dad is a homophobe.”
Burrowes made his case against the Bill Tuesday on ConservativeHome: “Marriage has never been just about the happiness and fulfilment of the individuals involved. It is part of a bigger picture — human societies need stable family groupings, especially for the nurture and care of children. The man-woman union at the heart of marriage has to do with this bigger picture.”
Burrowes also argues the marriage Bill will not significantly advance gay rights, pointing instead to his support for an introduction of a new offence of homophobic hatred.
Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin wrote an article defending the legislation for ConservativeHome, arguing “the Bill respects those who feel that same-sex marriage does represent an attack on their view of marriage” and since “nobody is going to be forced to take part in a same-sex marriage who does not wish to do so, I very much hope that in turn they will respect those who feel that the present inequality of marriage is an attack their identity and freedom as individuals.”
The newly elected Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, used his first post-appointment public statement to reaffirm the Church of England’s opposition to the Bill: “I stand, as I have always stood over the last few months, with the statement I made at the announcement of my appointment, which is that I support the Church of England’s position on this. We have made many statements about this and I stick with that.”
The Guardian opinion writer Polly Toynbee argued the fallout within the Conservative Party has failed to show they are “a modernised party” but instead revealed them “as a nest of bigots”, warning that the party disunity threatens the Conservatives’ chances at the next election.
The Second Reading started just after 12:30pm on Tuesday. Maria Miller introduced the bill: “The depth of feeling, love and commitment between same-sex couples is no different from that depth of feeling between opposite-sex couples. The Bill enables society to recognise that commitment in the same way, too, through marriage. Parliament should value people equally in the law, and enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current differentiation and distinction.”
Miller argued against the charge that the Bill redefines marriage by pointing to previous reforms of marriage law: “Suggestions that the Bill changes something that has remained unchanged for centuries simply do not recognise the road that marriage has travelled as an institution.”
Miller concluded her introduction of the Bill by appealing to fairness: “Despite all the discussion and debate, this Bill is about one thing — fairness. It is about giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so, while protecting the rights of those who do not agree with same-sex marriage. Marriage is one of the most important institutions we have; it binds families and society together, and it is a building block that promotes stability. This Bill supports and cultivates marriage, and I commend it to the House.”
The Labour politician Yvette Cooper gave the Opposition response. She welcomed the Bill and argued: “Parliament should not stop people getting married just because they have fallen in love with someone of the same sex, and we should not say that same-sex relationships are intrinsically worth less.”
Regarding the claim that the Bill would eventually force religious groups to perform same-sex ceremonies, Yvette Cooper stated: “It is clear that they will not have to.”
Cooper also argued against a number of objections to the Bill. She said some object that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman, but: “We cannot hide discrimination simply by calling it a definition. Marriage has changed many times over the centuries — and thank goodness for that.”
In response to the argument that marriage is for the purposes of procreation and protection of children, Cooper argued: “Many marriages are childless, and we do not prevent people who are too old or too sick to have children from getting married. We do not do fertility tests at the altar.”
Following the speeches of Miller and Cooper, MPs from all parties spoke both for and against the Bill. Opponents argued their opposition to the bill was not driven by homophobia or bigotry, the Labour MP Robert Flello stating: “the debate has been characterised as bigoted religion on the one hand versus equality on the other.”
Conservative MP Edward Leigh argued marriage exists for children: “Marriage exists to keep the parents exclusively committed to each other, because, on average, that is the best and most stable environment for children. If marriage were solely about the relationship between two people, we would not bother to enshrine it in law, and nor would every culture, society and religion for thousands of years have invested it with so much importance.”
Leigh then suggested proponents were motivated by their own interests rather than the interests of children: “Marriage is not about ‘me, me, me’, nor about legally validating ‘my rights’ and ‘my relationships’; it is about a secure environment for creating and raising children, based on lifelong commitment and exclusivity”.
The Conservative MP Nick Herbert introduced some levity into the debate when he ridiculed the idea that heterosexuals would be threatened by gay and lesbian couples getting married: “Darling, our marriage is over: Sir Elton John has just got engaged to David Furnish”.
David Lammy MP compared the campaign for gay rights to civil rights: “Separate but equal is a fraud. It’s the language that tried to push Rosa Parks to the back of the bus.”
During the debate, a number of gay MPs spoke in support of the bill. Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams noted: “Through my teenage years being openly gay was virtually impossible as it was terrifying in terms of the abuse.”
Crispin Blunt’s speech prompted Mark Menzies to note he would change from abstaining to supporting the bill.
Hugh Robertson closed the debate, praising the House for a “lively and impassioned debate” and stated the government’s case: “This is a bill with a very straightforward proposition at its heart: whether extending marriage for same-sex couples strengthens marriage and increases equality or whether it is a threat to religion and society. The Government believes it is the former.”
According to media reports, more Conservative MPs voted against the Bill than for it in the second reading. Conservative MP Tim Loughton said: “Apparently there’s 132 Conservative MPs who voted in favour, so I think what we’re going to see is that more Conservative MPs voted against this legislation than for it.”
Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the passage of the Second Reading, saying the legislation represents “an important step forward for our country”.