Today sees another step toward opening up marriage to same-sex couples, with the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. I’m very proud that it is my ministerial team who are taking this important legislation through.
Marriage is the bedrock of our society. It binds families and communities together and provides stability. Rightly, we celebrate it and accord it a special place in our society. So, it is right that people who are in same-sex relationships have the opportunity to join this extraordinary institution, and we have done this in a way that respects and values the very important role that faith plays in our society.
Marriage has always been an evolving institution. 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. This legislation continues that tradition. But I completely understand and respect that many religious groups are worried that this change will affect their freedom to decide whether or not they want to marry same-sex couples. I can confidently reassure them that it will not.
We’ve all seen the headlines suggesting all sorts of things – that churches will be forced to carry out same-sex weddings, that teachers will be fired if they don’t agree with same-sex marriage, or even that religious freedom is under threat. None of this is true at all.
A two-way street
I have always been crystal clear that I simply will not introduce any new law that does not provide protection for all religious organisations and individual ministers of religion. Our Bill will both protect and promote religious freedom in this country, so that religious organisations can continue to act according to their own doctrines and beliefs. I believe in marriage, but I also believe in people’s right to religious freedom – a right we’ll protect to the full extent of the law.
I completely understand the nervousness that accompanies a change like this. The diversity of our faiths and our tolerance of other people’s beliefs is something of which we are rightly proud in Britain. And tolerance is a two-way street. During our consultation on same-sex marriage we listened to those religions – including the Quakers, Liberal Jews and Unitarians – who said they wanted the opportunity to marry same-sex couples, and so we decided to build that into our plans. After all, we are very clear that this decision is entirely up to individual religious organisations and their ministers, but in principle who are we to stop those religious bodies from conducting same-sex marriages if they want to? Allowing them to do so promotes religious freedom.
A word on the Anglican churches
Since we announced our intention to introduce this legislation, it is true to say that there has been some confusion about the protections we’re offering the Church of England and the Church in Wales – so let’s clear it up once and for all.
The Church of England, as our established Church, shares with the Church in Wales a unique duty among religious organisations in England and Wales: their clergy have a duty in common law to marry their parishioners. This is not the case for Catholicism, Islam, Judaism or any other religion in this country.
So, the Bill we have introduced makes explicitly clear that the duty on clergy of the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry does not extend to same-sex couples. If we didn’t do this, both Churches could be vulnerable to legal challenge. And that is something I will just not accept.
So, they are not ‘banned’ from marrying same-sex couples, as you might have understood from some of the press coverage. There are clear legal routes for both Churches to be able to marry same-sex couples, if their positions should change in future. We are simply ensuring that their right to choose whether to marry same-sex couples or not is enshrined in the law, in the same way as it is for every and all other religious organisations.
A word too on teachers
There has been some debate about how this Bill will affect teachers and teaching about marriage in schools. Let me make it absolutely clear, that teachers will continue to have the clear right to express in a professional way their own beliefs, or that of their faith, 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.
But, of course they will not be required to promote same-sex marriage, and neither will we be bringing in new powers to sack teachers who disagree with same-sex marriage.
There are already many subjects which need to be taught carefully, particularly in faith schools – divorce, for example. The guidance governing these issues is the same guidance that will govern how same sex-marriage is handled. And equally, parents will continue to have the right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons that they do not consider appropriate.
This is not a battleground
There are strong views on both sides of the debate, and it is really important that all those views are heard and considered. I very much look forward to the debates that will follow, inside and outside of Parliament. But whatever side of the fence people sit on, I really hope that the argument is reasoned, and based on an understanding of our proposal – not inaccurate reporting of the facts.
The Government is in the business of protecting freedoms, religious or otherwise. I hope that this legislation comes to be seen as another step in the evolution of marriage taking us toward a society that is more free, more tolerant, and more fair.