UK draft proposals on gay marriage due
Legislation that would allow churches to refuse to hold gay marriage ceremonies had a “negligible” chance of being successfully challenged in British courts or in the European Court of Human Rights, the British government has said.
Draft proposals for the legislation are to be published today. MPs will have a free vote on the question when final legislation comes to the House of Commons next year, though many Conservative MPs and the party’s constituency organisations are opposed.
Under the plan, gay and lesbian couples would be able to get married in civil registry offices or by religious faiths that are happy to sanctify such unions – but churches that refuse could not be forced by law to do so.
Predicting a big majority in the vote, prime minister David Cameron insisted he would not put any of his MPs under pressure to support the change, which is opposed by the Catholic Church, the Church of England and Muslim groups.
“I won’t be whipping people or pressurising people. This is a matter for parliament and I think we just have to be grown-up and accept that in a modern political party sometimes you will have issues of conscience where people will vote in different ways,” he said.
Quakers, liberal Jews and Unitarians want to carry out gay marriage ceremonies and they will be given the freedom to do so, culture secretary Maria Miller told the Commons yesterday during an emergency debate called by a Conservative MP.
Despite opposition from some – but far from all – Conservatives, Mr Cameron’s position has been buttressed by former prime minister John Major, who said it was a “courageous and genuine attempt to offer security and comfort” to gay couples.
Facing questions in the Commons, Ms Miller said she would never introduce legislation that encroached on religious freedom, saying this was fully protected both in British and European human rights law.
“Freedom of religious belief is as important as equality and the views that people of faith hold should not be marginalised and should be fully respected,” said the culture secretary, who has accelerated publication of the proposed changes.
“Our position remains that we firmly support marriage. It’s one of the most important institutions we have in our country. The government should not stop people from being married unless there is a very good reason – and being gay, I believe, isn’t one of them,” she told MPs.
Countries that have legalised civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples, such as Denmark, Spain and Canada, have not seen legal actions to force churches to sanctify such unions, she told Conservative MP Iain Stewart.
Conservative MP Bob Stewart said Mr Cameron’s backing for gay marriage would “upset people in normal marriages”, while his colleague Matthew Offord asked if the government would now consider legalising polygamy. Welsh MP David Davies said he would back civil marriages for gay couples, rather than just civil partnerships, as happens now, but Mr Cameron’s backing for church services was “barking mad”.