Culture secretary unveils legislation, saying bill protects religious institutions that do not want to perform ceremonies
Controversial legislation to allow gay marriage has been unveiled by the government.
The culture secretary, Maria Miller, insisted on Friday the plans would ensure “equal and fair” treatment for same-sex couples, while protecting religious institutions that did not want to perform ceremonies.
But the bill is set to encounter fierce resistance from a significant number of Conservative MPs who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Miller said: “Marriage is a hugely important institution in this country – one which has changed throughout our history, and continues to change.
“The values of marriage bind families and communities together and bring stability. I believe that couples should not be excluded from marriage just because they love someone of the same sex. In opening up marriage to same-sex couples, we will further strengthen the importance of marriage in our society.
“Our proposals recognise, respect and value the very important role that faith plays in our lives. I have always been crystal clear that I would not put forward any legislation that did not provide protection for religious organisations. This bill protects and promotes religious freedom, so that all religious organisations can act according to their doctrines and beliefs.”
She said the bill recognised the unique legal situation of the Church of England and the Church in Wales: “Unlike any other religious organisation in this country, their clergy are subject to a legal duty to marry parishioners. To protect them from legal challenge, therefore, the bill makes clear that this duty does not extend to same-sex couples. Both churches have been clear that they do not currently wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples. If they choose to do so at a later date, they will of course be able to.”
The measures would also allow civil partners to convert their partnership to a marriage, and enable married people to change their legal gender without having to end their union.
It is expected that just under half of Conservative MPs, including many members of the cabinet, will either vote against the proposals or abstain when they are debated at second reading in the Commons on 5 February. The Tories have given their MPs a free vote, but a majority are expected to back Cameron in his support for the proposals. Since the vast majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs will back the plans, they will receive a comfortable second reading before facing a stormy passage in the Lords.
Conservative sources believe Cameron’s promise to back a referendum on Europe will draw some of the poison in the debate and even see some Tory MPs back him that otherwise would not have done
The bishop of Leicester, the Right Rev Tim Stevens, said he was grateful to Miller for the “constructive” way in which she had consulted the Church of England on the issue of effective legal safeguards.
“I acknowledge the progress made on that front, and the commitment of the government to ensuring that the church’s concerns are properly accommodated in the draft legislation,” he said.
The bishop said a “central test” of the bill would be whether it would “preserve and guarantee religious practice and religious conscience”.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary and shadow minister for women and equalities, said: “Couples who love each other and want to make a long-term commitment should be able to get married, whatever their gender or sexuality.
“Just as with civil partnerships in 2004, we look forward to passing this bill into law with Labour votes.
“As freedom of religion is important, no church or religious organisation will be required to hold same-sex marriage ceremonies, but those who want to should be able to.
“So I’m glad the government has changed course and accepted our proposal that churches such as the Quakers and Unitarians who want to hold same-sex marriages should be able to do so.
“The government also needs to make sure other churches – including the Church of England and the Church in Wales – can sign up to equal marriage in future if they change their minds, without needing to return to cumbersome primary legislation.”