The government sets out its plans to legislate for same-sex marriage, but not in the Church of England. One gay MP tells Channel 4 News it is is “one step forward, two steps back”.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller promised today that no church will ever be forced to conduct a gay wedding under the new legislation for equal marriage.
And the legislation will explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry same-sex couples and that canon law, which bans same-sex weddings, will continue to apply.
The move has provoked concern among some MPs, with former minister Chris Bryant calling it “one step forward and two steps back”.
Speaking to Channel 4 News he said: “She’s managed to turn a good news announcmenet into a bad news announcement. The idea of a ban on the Church of England is completely unnecessary. If a church doesn’t want to, it doesn’t have to, but if it wants to, it can’t.
“I’d been waiting to greet this announcement with excitement, but I really think it’s an own goal.”
Setting out the government’s plans to allow same-sex marriage, Mrs Miller said she would guarantee watertight protection for religious organisations.
She told the House of Commons in a statement that she was building on the European convention on human rights, which protects the right to freedom of religion.
This means that no religious organisation or individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises and that no discrimination claim can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple.
Mrs Miller said she would now continue to consult on how best to implement the government’s plans in legislation to be introduced early in the new year.
“I am absolutely clear that no religious organisation will ever be forced to conduct marriages for same-sex couples, and I would not bring in a bill which would allow that,” she said.
“European law already puts religious freedoms beyond doubt, and we will go even further by bringing in an additional ‘quadruple legal lock’. But it is also a key aspect of religious freedom that those bodies who want to opt in should be able to do so.”
But Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary and minister for women and equalities, said: “Why is the government now rowing backwards on equal marriage? Having said that churches would be able to hold same sex marriages if they wanted to, they now say it will be illegal for the Church of England to do so even if it wants to in future. How can that be freedom of religion? These plans are now deeply confused.”
The Rt Rev Tim Stephens, Bishop of Leicester said: “Marriage is not the property of the Government nor is it the property of the Church; and while the forms and legalities around marriage have evolved over time, as the noble lady minister has pointed out, one fundamental feature has remained the same throughout: that marriage is a union of one man and one woman, a social institution that pre-dates both Church and State and has been the glue that has bound countless successive societies together.”
Meanwhile the Catholic Church stepped up its opposition to same-sex marriage, accusing ministers of ignoring a 600,000-signature petition supporting the status quo.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, and Archbishop Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Southwark, said opponents of gay marriage should lobby MPs “clearly, calmly and forcefully, and without impugning the motives of others”.
The move has been hailed by some gay rights campaigners and is seen as a litmus test of David Cameron’s efforts to modernise the Conservative party.
However it has angered some Conservatives who have warned that many activists feel so strongly that they will no longer be prepared to go out and campaign for the party if it goes through.
The prime minister yesterday sought to appease those with differing views, assuring Conservative MPs that there will be no whip and so will have a free vote on the issue.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are backing the legislation, however it is thought that as many as 130 Tory MPs could vote against the plans, highlighting deep divisions in the party.
Mr Cameron yesterday acknowledged that equal marriage was not seen as a priority at a time when the government was preoccupied with deficit reduction and public sector reform, but said he believed the time had now come for change.
The measures will grant religious groups which want to stage same-sex civil marriages in places of worship the right to do so, but will offer a guarantee that no institution will be forced to do so.
Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill said: ‘We’re delighted about the government’s statement today and welcome the promise to legislate for equal marriage as warmly as on the three previous occasions that this announcement has been made.
‘We’re particularly pleased that ministers have been persuaded to extend their original proposal in order to permit same-sex marriages for those religious denominations that wish to hold them. This is an important matter of religious freedom.
‘While we fully respect the point of view of those who oppose the government’s plans, our advice to them remains that if you don’t approve of same-sex marriage, then just make sure you don’t get married to someone of the same sex.’