"In the weeks before the Second Reading of the Bill, many constituents emailed me. I put an earlier version of this response on my website, which I have now updated. I hope it will be accepted as a response to the questions about how I voted on this important issue. I am of course happy to respond to further enquiries."
On January 25th , the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was published. This allows same-sex couples to marry, either in a civil ceremony (in a register office or on approved premises, such as hotels) or, where the religious organisation’s governing body chooses to opt in, on religious premises or with a religious ceremony.
"I voted for Second Reading of the Bill on February 5th."
“Prior to that vote, around 254 constituents contacted me about these proposals, a large majority against what was proposed in last year’s consultation paper. I replied to them, setting out the reasons why the Government was proposing this change and saying that I would reflect on their views before coming to a decision. In particular, I wanted to see the legislation, and the details of the safeguards for organisations that don’t want to take part.”
Sir George, also the Government Chief Whip, explained that there would be a free vote, with all MP’s able to vote as they wished. "I am not putting any pressure on anyone to vote for or against the Second Reading of the Bill."
“The legislation reiterates the Government’s absolute commitment to religious freedom and ensures that no religious organisation or individual minister can be forced to conduct same-sex marriages. Furthermore Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of religion, and the Bill protects and promotes religious freedom through the Government’s ‘quadruple lock’. This ensures that religious organisations and individual ministers can act in accordance with their beliefs on this issue. No one is disadvantaged by this legislation."
"I believe that marriage is a hugely important institution in this country. The principles of long-term commitment and responsibility which underpin it bind society together and make it stronger. The key question for me was whether this measure will weaken or strengthen marriage, by allowing individuals, who are currently barred, to access it. I do not believe that it is right for me, as an MP, to exclude someone from access to marriage, simply because they love someone of the same sex. I am not taking anything away from anyone; or making anyone do what they don’t want to do. I am extending freedom of choice. So I believe that opening up marriage to all couples, can strengthen, not weaken, the institution of marriage, and help ensure that it remains an essential building block of society.”
“Marriage has never been static. It has evolved. In the 19th century, inequalities prevented Catholics, atheists, Baptists and many others from marrying except in the Anglican Church. In the 20th century, the law was changed to recognise married men and married women as equal before law. Marriage reform has ensured that as society has changed, so marriage has changed and has become available to a broader range of people. This legislation continues that tradition. Seven other European countries either have or are legislating in the way we propose, without undermining the institution of marriage.”
“I would never support legislation that did not allow for the absolute protection of religious organisations. The Bill protects and promotes religious freedom, by enabling religious organisations to act in line with their doctrines and beliefs. It contains a number of explicit legal locks to ensure that no religious organisation or minister can be compelled to conduct a same-sex marriage ceremony, whilst enabling those religious organisations which want to be able to marry same-sex couples to do so.
The Bill’s ‘quadruple lock’:
makes clear that a religious marriage ceremony of a same-sex couple will only be possible if:
(i) the governing body of the religious organisation has opted in by giving explicit consent to same-sex marriages
(ii) the individual minister is willing to conduct the marriage; and
(iii) if it takes place in a place of worship, those premises have been registered for marriages of same-sex couples.
explicitly states that no religious organisation can be compelled to opt in to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises; and no religious organisation or minister can be compelled to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies;
amends the Equality Act 2010 to make clear that it is not unlawful discrimination for a religious organisation or individual minister to refuse to marry a same-sex couple.
ensures that the common law legal duty on the clergy of the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry parishioners will not extend to same-sex couples. It also protects the Church of England’s Canon law which says that marriage is the union of one man with one woman, so that it does not conflict with civil law.
Teaching in schools
“Some constituents are concerned about the impact of the Bill on teachers and teaching about marriage in schools. Teachers will continue to have the clear right to express their own beliefs, or that of their faith in a professional way, such as that marriage should be between a man and a woman. No teacher will be required to promote or endorse views which go against their beliefs. As with any area of the curriculum, teachers will of course be required to teach the factual position that under the law, marriage can be between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples. There are many areas within teaching, particularly within faith schools, where this already happens and where subjects such as divorce or sex and relationship education are taught with sensitivity. The guidance governing these issues is the same guidance that will govern how same-sex marriage in the classroom will be approached. Equally, parents will continue to have the right, to withdraw their children from sex education. Those who have contacted me about the position of teachers or registrars should read what Ministers said on May 20th. I hope that allays their concerns"
Sir George said that a few members of his local Party have said they would not support it again, if the legislation went through. “I have written to them, saying that I am very grateful for the support which they have offered to me and my Party in the past, and that I understand their strong feelings on this issue. I hope that, between now and May 2015, I might have the opportunity to persuade them to reconsider."
"Looking through the representations I have received and the people I have spoken to, there does seem to be a generational issue at work. People of my generation are more hostile to these proposals, while the younger generation are more relaxed."
The following letter from two of my Parliamentary colleagues addresses some of the concerns constituents have raised with me
Ahead of Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill on Tuesday, we thought that the following information might be helpful.
1. CHURCH OF ENGLAND SAYS FEARS BASED ON "MISUNDERSTANDING"
Religious freedom is a key principle for many of us. So the Government’s position that no faith group will be forced to conduct same-sex marriages against their will is welcome.
Some have expressed concern, however, that the Bill’s ‘locks’ might not be effective; others that the specific protections for the Church of England and Church in Wales go too far, outlawing them from ever conducting same-sex marriages.
But in an important statement, the Church of England has said these fears "are based on a misunderstanding of [their] established status."
They confirmed that "the effect of what the Government has proposed is to leave decisions about the doctrine and practice of the Church of England with the Church of England."
The Church in Wales has also said that “the Bill provides protection for the Church whilst still enabling it to make its own decision on same-sex marriage.”
The specific provisions for the Church of England and Church in Wales simply provide for these churches the same protections as other faith groups will enjoy, in a way which reflects their particular legal and constitutional positions.
2. HUMAN RIGHTS CHALLENGE REJECTED
Many colleagues are concerned to ensure that human rights law will not force churches to marry same-sex couples. You will be aware that the Attorney General has assured us that this will not be the case.
The Attorney’s view is supported by one of the country's foremost human rights lawyers. In an article in the Times (£), Lord Pannick QC said: "It is clear beyond argument that no human rights court would compel religious authorities to conduct a marriage service for two men or two women, in breach of its own religious doctrines."
A number of European countries have already introduced equal marriage and the European Court of Human Rights has not overturned their decision.
The Coalition for Marriage is circulating a summary of a legal opinion by Aidan O’Neill QC, commissioned by them, claiming that “'the legal opinion suggests that an outright ban on religious gay weddings could be overturned under European human rights laws”. However, the full opinion itself actually says:
“'I am being asked if the proposal to allow non-established religious bodies ... the option to decide whether or not to carry out legally binding same-sex marriages could withstand scrutiny before the Strasbourg Court. Based on the current case law of the European Court of Human Rights, my tentative reply to that question is ‘yes’.”
“It does seem to me that considerations of freedom of religion ... would be taken into account by the European Court to accept that it was within the State's margin of appreciation to make legislative provisions allowing non-established religious bodies already licensed to perform legally-binding marriages.”
3. POLLS SHOW GROWING SUPPORT FOR EQUAL MARRIAGE
All independently-conducted polls continue to indicate that a substantial majority of the public is in favour of equal marriage – and there is also evidence that support is strengthening.
An ICM poll for the Guardian, published on 26 December, showed that "three in five voters back gay marriage". 62 per cent of voters supported the move – up from 45 per cent in March 2012. Opposition had fallen from 36 per cent to 31 per cent.
Only the ComRes polls commissioned by the Coalition for Marriage have suggested that a majority of the public is opposed to equal marriage.
Sir George voted for the Third Reading of the Bill on May 22nd. "I recognise the strong feelings aroused by this measure. But I honestly believe that, in a few years time, those who find this move contentious will look on it more favourably. More states in America and countries in Europe are now doing what we are doing - and there is no evidence that this is underminiong the importance of marraige."