We all know it’s been coming and yet when the reality of the situation begins to sink in the emotions and frustrations begin to boil over.
That’s the sense of feeling I’ve been getting today as I’ve seen the huge response to the news that the Government is to allow churches and other religious organisations to host same-sex weddings. Given that during the initial consultation earlier in the year the promise was that gay marriages would remain entirely civil, it’s not surprising that there has been an outpouring of anger from traditional marriage supporters as the goal posts have been moved once again. The overwhelming sense I’m getting is one of fear and betrayal.
First of all gay marriage plans were announced despite there being no mention of them in any party manifesto at the last election, then as the consultation was launched it was stated that the decision had already been made that gay marriage would happen irrespective of public feelings and sentiment. Now we have another development where the Government appears to have completely ignored the wishes of many religious institutions. The reasoning is that if equal marriage were to be enacted without provision for marriage on religious premises, that law would be seriously vulnerable to challenge under equalities legislation or at the European Court of Human Rights. This is what the Church of England and other organisations have been saying all along, but with the sudden change of heart, it’s no wonder that those who are against the gay marriage plans are fearful of what is to come.
As I look at it, gay marriage itself is almost becoming secondary to the way that the Government is going about its business. If politicians want to build trust, this is definitely not the way to go about it. Marriage is still a key part of our societal make-up even though the numbers getting married have declined significantly over recent years. It’s not something to be played with as a political football. The full consultation results will be out next week, but the rumours that the Government is planning to rush the legislation through early next year, doesn’t give the impression that they understand or respect the enormity of what they are doing.
I personally don’t see that gay marriage is the equal of heterosexual marriage, but at the same time I understand why many would want to see it happen. If the legislation is passed it won’t affect myself greatly in my day-to-day life nor will it for the vast majority of the population, but what it will do is leave a great deal of uncertainty about what the future holds. Will churches who want to offer gay-marriage ceremonies cause great battles within their own denominations? Will churches still run the risk of facing court cases in this country or at the European court of Human rights if they refuse to accommodate gay-marriages despite the Government’s promises that may or may not be impossible to keep? Will teachers be forced to teach that there is no difference between gay and heterosexual marriage under equalities law? Perhaps I’m scaremongering, but whichever way we look at it, the future of marriage will not be as straightforward as David Cameron and others would wish us believe.
The Church of England has responded today with a press statement that includes this passage:
‘We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.
‘Given the absence of any manifesto commitment for these proposals – and the absence of any commitment in the most recent Queen’s speech – there will need to be an overwhelming mandate from the consultation to move forward with these proposals and make them a legislative priority.’
There are plenty of MPs who don’t believe there is an overwhelming mandate. Bob Blackman, Conservative MP for Harrow East, spoke today that there will be “outrage throughout the country” and a “clear backlash” against David Cameron’s proposals. His fellow MP Stewart Jackson tweeted: “Gay marriage bill will be massacred in the Lords and govt can’t use Parliament Act as it wasn’t in manifesto. Arrogant Cameron knows best.” David Cameron has tried to appease those in his party who disagree with his stance by saying it will be a free vote, but currently the liberal Democrats and Labour will be applying the party whip to ensure the measure is passed, so it will be anything but a free vote.
If you want to see an example of democracy at its best this really is not the place to be looking. The biggest danger through all of this for David Cameron is that he permanently damages his standing with a large proportion of the public and yet he still chooses to push on regardless. Potentially this will be what he is remembered for more than anything else as Prime Minister. Certainly any gay marriage proposal brought to parliament was always going to be hugely controversial, but whichever way you look at it, it could and should have been handled so, so much better. The institution of marriage deserves far more respect than this for all our sakes.
To get a more detailed legal understanding of today’s announcement then the UK Human Rights Blog is the place to visit. For a helpful, general overview, I recommend Stuart at eChurch’s write-up of today’s news.