I intend to vote for the same-sex marriage bill in the House of Commons, which would allow same sex couples to marry in a civil ceremony (i.e. in a registry office or at an approved premises such as a hotel) or on a religious premises if their organising body chooses to opt in.
I respect that people have strongly held views on both sides of the argument, and have listened carefully to the points that have been put to me. As this is a contentious issue on both sides of the debate it is right that I should define the terms of that debate which led me to this decision.
I start considerations on this matter from believing that marriage is a strong building block in society, irrespective of whether it is church or civil marriage.
It would help to set out what I do not think are material considerations in this matter.
This vote is not about homosexuality. Most gay men and women – like most heterosexual men and women – are ordinary people with ordinary lives contributing to society in a positive way. People are people. Most are good and some are not, but that is not decided by sexuality.
This debate is not about what the Bible does or doesn’t say or about demonising those who believe the Bible’s teachings support or do not support homosexuality or gay marriage. I respect people of faith and I respect their right to hold views about the meaning of the Scriptures. Both sides of this issue have quoted the Bible to support their arguments.
To my mind this vote is not about whether Parliament has the right to ‘redefine’ marriage. Marriage has changed throughout the centuries, whether it be the age at which people can marry, whether divorcees can remarry in church, whether civil marriage in a registry office is true marriage. The definition of marriage has changed significantly in the past and therefore I do not think there is a principle about marriage being ‘unchanging’.
The debate is also not about whether teachers will have to ‘endorse’ same-sex marriage when teaching children about relationships. Teachers already educate about civil partnerships, slavery, communism and different religions. Teachers are professionals, they teach objectively. They do not ‘endorse’ any of these subjects. They teach that these matters exist or that they happened.
This debate is not about adoption. Gay couples can already adopt. Most people – including me – believe that the place for a child to be brought up is in a happy stable home, typically with their mother and father. But this does not mean that single parents, relatives and gay couples cannot bring children up as successfully. They certainly do and nothing in this bill will change current adoption arrangements.
This debate for me is recognising the importance of marriage and its role in society, together with the safeguards for those religious institutions who wish to have no part in same-sex ceremonies.
I have already said that I believe marriage to be an important building block in our society, by strengthening commitment. The bill provides for equal marriage, so opens the door to extending the positives of marriage to more people. More commitment in our society is a good thing to me. I recognise, however, that there is an impact on religious freedom.
I have, therefore, closely examined the so-called quadruple lock which aims to prevent those religions and those churches who do not wish to undertake same-sex marriages having to do so.
The Church of England currently does not have the right to turn away people who wish to marry. To overcome this historic position and protect religious freedoms, the quadruple lock specifically exempts the Church of England from conducting same-sex marriage as the church of the state – although some officials, including in Harrogate, have indicated that they wish to conduct same-sex marriages if the legislation becomes law.
Other religions can choose whether or not they wish their churches to conduct same-sex ceremonies. Even if a religion chooses to do so then individual churches and individual ministers have to opt in and cannot be compelled to carry out same-sex ceremonies. I strongly believe in religious freedom.
Many people have expressed fear that human rights lawyers may be able to overturn such arrangements. I have spoken to government ministers and examined the situation in other countries which already have same-sex marriage. Nowhere have similar safeguards been overturned.
My judgement that the ‘quadruple lock’ will indeed prevent churches from being compelled to conduct same-sex marriages has therefore been a significant factor in being able to support the legislation. The attached document gives the Government’s legal view of the concerns that have been raised.
I regret that we are having this debate at all. It has allowed people to think that Parliament’s focus is not firmly on economic recovery. I can assure constituents that it is and I can assure them that this, in addition to my duties as a constituency MP, is where my focus lies.