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19 July 2013

What was achieved in opposing the redefinition of marriage?

This week the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill was given a third reading by the House of Lords and after the formality of reference back to the House of Commons for sanctioning any amendments it will inevitably become law.

The three main political machines forced the bill through and in doing so disallowed every proposed non-government amendment that would for example have tightened up the levels of protection for the millions of people who disagree with the bill. It would seem that in politics and culture, gay rights trump many other rights.

We believe that from the beginning the bill was undemocratic because it has been forced on the British public – as it was in France - despite the majority being against it. It was introduced without a mandate from the voters following a sham consultation which dismissed 500,000 legitimate responses which, if counted, would have shown 84 per cent of the public opposed to redefining marriage. During passage of the controversial bill which by convention was supposed to be accompanied by free conscience votes, MPs and peers were subjected to behind the scenes whipping. This represents the very worst context in which to push through legislation as highly disputed as this. Experience shows that forcing the rights of a minority on a majority without a mandate rarely works.

We are concerned that as a regrettable consequence this country, like France and others, could well face a future of provocation and confrontation with frequent legal battles. There was of course a very strong case for reasonable and necessary safeguards to protect the civil liberties of the majority of ordinary people who believe in traditional marriage. Many MPs and peers courageously tabled reasonable and appropriate civil liberty amendments. However, none of them were voted into the bill.

Some 25 protective amendments were tabled by peers including:

  • For teachers – so that they would not be disciplined for their beliefs about marriage.
  • For workers – so that people in the workplace who regard the new ideas about marriage as sham would be reasonably accommodated.
  • For chaplains – so that they would be free to express their beliefs without fear of losing their jobs.
  • For councils – so that people or organisations that disagree with same-sex marriage should not be disadvantaged.
  • For free speech – so that people can continue to speak openly about marriage without being penalised under the civil law.

The government refused all amendments on the grounds that they believe people are already protected under existing equality legislation. They did however table two minor amendments which slightly clarify existing law:

  1. Section 29 of the Public Order Act 1986 currently outlaws "threatening words and behaviour intended to stir up hatred on the ground of sexual orientation". Section 29JA of the Act makes it clear that "for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred". The new marriage bill now amends Section 29JA of the Public Order Act to add a further sub section stating that "for the avoidance of doubt, any discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred".

    The government states that it believes this amendment will ensure no one will suffer legal action as a result of standing up for traditional marriage. But many legal advisers are not convinced. Firstly, the amendment covers only criminal not civil law. Secondly, the questions of what is 'threatening' and whether someone 'intends stir up hatred' are both subjective and highly contextual. It is not difficult to envisage many situations in which it will be strenuously argued that the mere expressing of opposition to same-sex marriage is regarded as 'threatening' and 'intended to stir up hatred'. Any additional protection offered by this amendment is therefore very weak.

  2. The government clarified what it meant by ministers of religion not being 'compelled' to conduct same-sex marriages. The relevant section of the bill now reads that "a person may not be compelled by any means (including by the enforcement of a contract or a statutory or other legal requirement) to conduct a relevant marriage".

    This is a helpful clarificatory amendment. However, there was never any likelihood of individual ministers being forced to marry same-sex couples so this change actually adds very little.

Next year the government will begin issuing marriage certificates for same-sex couples. They will be lawful but in fact sham since they will be reflecting a redefinition of marriage that ignores gender, ignores fidelity, ignores adultery and consummation, and makes a mockery of the English language as most people instinctively recognise marriage can only be between one man and one woman. It can only be redefined at the cost of emptying it of its true meaning.

As Lord Framlingham declared at third reading of the bill, an "ill-thought through" change has been "bulldozed" through parliament. It was David Cameron's plan to force this bill through as part of a Conservative Party rebranding exercise. He was only able to do it with the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. A majority of his own Conservative MPs rejected same-sex marriage. It should be remembered that more than 300 MPs and peers voted against this bill and highlighted the many problems with this legislation which many believe will soon become only too evident.

In the future there will be an ongoing need to promote and defend marriage, hold politicians to account for their actions, and highlight cases of injustice against people who believe in traditional marriage. Marriage is too vital to the future of our society for it to be abandoned and there is now a great opportunity for Christians and others who care about the future of marriage to promote and model what marriage really is.

Expect the advent of a UK and international movement to defend and promote the real meaning of marriage and to put forward a public voice to insist upon the natural meaning of words and institutions as well as commonsense logic.

Visit www.eauk.org/marriage for more details on the public policy work of the Alliance on the redefinition of marriage, including a briefing for churches following the redefinition of marriage.