Monday, 28 January 2013

A long letter from an MP who supports same-sex "marriage"

This is a very long letter on same-sex "marriage" from the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, Martin Horwood.  I had emailed him to ask his view on the subject, and am quite happy with the format of a standard reply, since he has received a large amount of mail on the subject.  Naturally I disagree with his view, but I commend him for taking such trouble over his reply.


20 November 2012

Equal marriage

Thank you for getting in touch with me about the issue of equal marriage (same-sex marriage). I must apologise if this reply has taken a while to reach you. Some of the points being raised by constituents have been quite fine legal and even theological arguments and I wanted to hear from ministers and religious authorities on these points before deciding on my answers to you. I finally did get the chance to question equalities minister Lynne Featherstone MP about this only recently. At the same meeting I also heard the views of colleagues with legal backgrounds and from those with a variety of beliefs, including committed Christians. I have also had the opportunity to talk to another kind of minister, the House of Commons chaplain the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin who was very helpful in answering my questions, as well as to Michael Perham, the Bishop of Gloucester, and Cheltenham’s only rabbi, Anna Gerrard.

Can I also apologise for sending you the same reply as I’m now sending to all those who get in touch on this issue. I have had quite a few letters and emails on this subject and a standard reply will make sure that everyone gets a prompt reply from now on. If you think I haven’t replied to a specific point which you feel is important, do feel free to get in touch again or perhaps to book a surgery appointment so that we can discuss this face-to-face.

The government’s proposal
Let me first clarify the government’s position. Based on pre-election commitments by both coalition parties , the government has declared its intention to legislate for equal marriage laws for heterosexual and homosexual couples. A three-month public consultation was recently held by the Home Office although this was more about the implementation of the proposal not about whether or not to do it. This is common on subjects for which the government feels it has a democratic mandate and on which it is determined to act. This still doesn’t force MPs to vote for it, of course.

The Liberal Democrat position
Liberal Democrat views on this issue are clear and longstanding. As Nick Clegg said recently: ‘love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same too. All couples should be able to make the same commitment to each other, regardless of who they love.’
This is rooted in our view, expressed in our party’s fundamental statement of principles, that ‘the Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.’

We do not believe equal marriage poses any threat to religious freedom. We do believe this is a civil liberties issue: legislation for equal marriage will remove from the law a significant discrimination against gay couples.

There has been some concern expressed about the fact that the party ‘whip’ will be applied by the Liberal Democrats on this issue whereas Conservative MPs may have a free vote on the matter. I have to say this is quite normal on a proposal that is both party and government policy but it is a bit academic in reality because there is near universal support for the measure amongst LibDem MPs in any case.

Even so, the Liberal Democrat ‘whip’ is perhaps not as draconian as in more authoritarian parties. We allow individual MPs to vote according their conscience in the end anyway, even on a whipped vote, providing they abide by a few rules such as talking to the minister or spokesperson concerned and take the trouble to listen to the whole debate before they vote. I have done this myself on issues such as the NHS Bill, civil servants’ terms and conditions and the Legal Aid Bill. I cannot imagine any LibDem MP who felt very strongly about this issue being persuaded to vote against their conscience just because the whips told them to do so.

The legal arguments concerning marriage in church
There have been a number of other concerns put to me and I will try to answer these one by one.

The most common concern is that the legislation will affect religious marriages in church. It will not. The bill concerns the civil marriage service provided by the government’s own register offices (or on other premises using the civil ceremony, such as hotels). If a minister or congregation want to see same sex marriages in their church or place of worship this is not currently legally recognised. I believe they should be able to do this if it is compatible with their own tradition, but this was not actually included in the government’s initial proposal. Whether it is or not, the minister has confirmed to me personally that nothing in the bill will force ministers or congregations to accept legally recognised same-sex marriages in their church or temple against their wishes and beliefs.

Ministers or congregations that actually want to conduct religious weddings between couples of the same sex can already do this but it is not legally recognised and a civil ceremony must be conducted as well. Unless the government’s proposal changes, this will remain the case. Some religious organisations have lobbied for the right to conduct same sex marriages should they want to do so, and I would support this right.

Concerns about the European Court of Human Rights
There has been some concern that campaigners might use the European Court of Human Rights to press equal marriage on reluctant ministers if the legislation goes through but, again, ministers tell that they have had clear legal advice and two separate opinions from the Court itself that marriage law relating to same-sex couples is a matter for states to decide and the Court does not regard religious same-sex marriage as an inalienable human right .

There was some concern that the Church of England is at particular risk from some kind of legal action because of its position as the state church. For instance, it cannot currently refuse parishioners the right to be married in its churches, unless they are divorced. I have discussed this with the minister too. She is of the opinion that the Church of England would be under no greater obligation to perform same sex marriages than any other denomination but in any case the European Court’s intention to leave this to member states still stands and there will certainly be no such special obligation in the legislation. I am happy to press ministers to make this freedom quite explicit in the legislation.

Social arguments about the status of marriage
To be absolutely clear: the intention is to allow civil marriages for gay couples and perhaps to permit any religious ministers or congregations that wish to register same-sex marriages the freedom to do so within the law. There is nothing in the government proposal that will force this on any religious minister or congregation that does not want to do it.

The question then becomes whether or not there are wider social reasons or deeper religious reasons why equal marriage should not proceed and even if there are, whether or not those who believe in them have the right to stop those who don’t from having the marriage they want.

I have heard an essentially social argument that equal marriage will in some way undermine the institution of marriage itself. This seems quite illogical to me. Generally, as a society, we believe that stable loving relationships are reinforced by the status of marriage. Surely this should be as true for gay couples as for heterosexual couples. Recognition of same-sex marriage could even be said to strengthen the status of marriage by including in it people previously excluded from the institution and strengthening the protection of children within these families. Generally speaking, society has tended to regard a decline in the number of marriages as a weakening of the institution so surely we should welcome its expansion to more couples.

Arguments from religious tradition
A more religious argument which has been put to me is that marriage has been defined by religious tradition as a union between one man and one woman and so marriage between people of the same sex is something different in kind and should not be called ‘marriage’. It has even been suggested to me that this will therefore undermine the religious idea of marriage and, in effect, be a form of discrimination against those of religious faith.

But it is far from clear to me that even religious opinion is united on this issue.

A member of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party who is a committed Christian spoke movingly at one of our meetings. He cited the New Testament injunction to love thy neighbour (Romans 13:9) as a powerful warning against discrimination. You can’t love someone if you discriminate against them, he said, and the law at the moment discriminates against gay people by denying them the right to marry.

Anna Gerrard, Cheltenham’s liberal rabbi, told me that she fully supports the government’s proposal. Liberal Judaism rabbis, she told me, ‘officiate at religious marriage ceremonies for same sex couples, currently in conjunction with civil partnerships, and hope that these may soon be enshrined in UK law. As the Rabbi of the Gloucestershire Liberal Judaism Community, I will ensure that the same opportunities to sanctify relationships are available to Jewish and mixed faith same sex couples in the county as are available to heterosexual couples.’

Quakers are amongst the most longstanding supporters of equal marriage. The Society of Friends welcomes ‘proposals offering same-sex couples equal treatment with opposite-sex couples’. The Society goes on: ‘We support the balance of equal rights with equal responsibility. We hope these registrations may be mutually recognised within the United Kingdom and outside it. Quaker Meetings in some parts of Britain have already celebrated same-sex commitments in meetings for worship, and more will do so’.

Their theological justification for this recalls George Fox’s words in 1669: ‘joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests or magistrates’; for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s; and therefore Friends cannot consent that they should join them together: for we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.’ In other words it is for God and for the participants themselves to determine what is right and proper in marriage according to their conscience and belief.

The law we are proposing echoes this idea: it will facilitate more than define marriage for people, whether they are religious or non-religious, gay or straight.

The Unitarian Church in the UK has also made clear its support: ‘We value religious freedom. We do not believe any religious group should be forced to undertake same sex marriage. However, we would claim the right to do so in line with our own deeply held convictions about the inherent worth of all individuals and for public recognition of relationships.’

In April a letter to The Times was published from 15 senior Church of England clergy and Synod members including the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, and the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. The writers described marriage as a ‘robust institution’ and said ‘the Church calls marriage holy or sacramental because the covenant relationship of faithful committed love between the couple reflects the covenanted love and commitment between God and his Church. Growing in this kind of love means we are growing in the image of God. So the fact that there are same sex couples who want to embrace marriage should be a cause for rejoicing in the Christian Church.’

I do not necessarily expect you to be persuaded by these arguments. But I hope you will recognise that they do represent sincere religious opinions and that they demonstrate more openness in the religious conception of marriage than some opponents of equal marriage suggest.

Our own Bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham, is prevented from expressing a strong opinion on this issue one way or the other at present as he has agreed to take part in the Church of England’s own review of its attitude to homosexuality and feels that he should not therefore declare his ‘mind to be made up’ on equal marriage.

But in his recent address to the diocese, Bishop Michael made a very interesting point. He accepted that if you take a ‘conservative biblical view that scripture forbids all homosexual relationships, then obviously you cannot support any such relationship, whether called ‘marriage’ or anything else. But if you believe, as clearly many people do, in society and indeed in the Church, that faithful same-sex relationships, in which there is physical intimacy, can be acceptable to God, then you need to find a language for such relationships.’ Bishop Michael acknowledged that, for some, using the word ‘marriage’ seems like a step too far. ‘Yet’ he said ‘when people try to describe what such a relationship should be like, they find themselves saying ‘it is akin to marriage’.’

Have we the right to ban same sex marriage?
For me Bishop Michael’s point about language gets to the heart of the matter. No one section of society owns the word ‘marriage’. Its meaning – and particularly whether or not that meaning necessarily excludes same sex couples - is not even agreed amongst those of religious belief as I hope I’ve shown.

But even if I was convinced by a particular religious point of view about who should be included in the idea of marriage, I don’t think it would necessarily give me the right to impose that view of marriage on those who don’t share this religious conviction. The law of the United Kingdom has to be fair to those of all religious beliefs and of none. Just because someone of a particular religious belief is convinced that the word ‘marriage’ can only encompass a union between one man and one woman, that does not give them (or me) the right to insist that the state prevents someone who does not share that conviction from putting into practice their own conception of marriage.

After all, most Christians (with the historical exception of the Church of Latter Day Saints) would not say that marriage should include multiple wives. Yet they do not generally declare that Muslims with more than one wife are not really married. We all recognise the validity of that very different conception of marriage and this is supported by UK law.

Given the variety of religious and non-religious arguments above, we have to ask ourselves why we should exclude same sex relationships from the legal institution. As legislators, we don’t allow a complete free-for-all and obviously can and do impose some boundaries on the legal institution of marriage in the UK. Indeed we are right now considering more specific legislation against the practice of forced marriage. But most of the remaining restrictions on marriage are protective ones like this, for instance relating to age or consent.

The ban on marriage for same sex couples is not protective. A gay couple do no harm to anyone else when they marry. It is a loss of civil liberty that they are not allowed to do this on an equal basis with couples of the opposite sex.

I do not believe that I or the government should have the right to tell gay people that they cannot get married if that is what they choose to do. I completely support the freedom of Christians and others to marry in the way they think is right, but not to stop others from doing the same.

Thank you once again for getting in contact about this important issue.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Horwood MP

Member of Parliament for Cheltenham

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