The Parliamentary vote on February 5 went in favour of redefining marriage. But it’s hard to know who really ‘won’ the vote on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. What is clear is that the government had to rely upon the votes of the opposition parties to secure further passage of the Bill through Parliament.
Although 440 votes for and 175 against is a very clear majority in favour, only around 130 were expected to vote against this Bill, which David Cameron is keen to push through and enshrine in law at the earliest opportunity. Add to that a few abstentions and around 35 who didn’t vote at all, and we see more widespread support of biblical marriage than was predicted. This is surprising, considering the current trend in society to embrace all things ‘progressive’ and ‘equal’, and that anyone opposing this Bill is labelled old fashioned at best and a bigoted homophobe at worst.
Over 70 MPs wanted to speak on the Bill, and Maria Miller, the Minister for Women and Equalities, took many interventions during her reading of it. Questions raised covered the impact of the Bill upon teachers, chaplains, religious leaders, with MPs asking for reassurance that the rights of one group would not now trump the rights of another. Her answers were at times evasive; teachers will be protected from having to promote same-sex marriage (SSM), but she twice avoided answering questions upon the freedom of schools to teach only traditional marriage.
With regard to the role of Europe and the prosecution of a faith group which did not agree with SSM, Ms. Miller explained that three unlikely events would have to happen for the European Court to be able to force a faith group to comply with the new law, and she believes that the possibility of this combination of events occurring is ‘inconceivable’.
Less reassuring were her comments that the Church of England and the Church in Wales would be able to opt in to marrying same-sex couples. Her answer did not make it entirely clear whether or not that would mean individual congregations, or the denomination as a whole. However, discriminating between faith groups in the way the government proposes, with its ‘quadruple lock’ designed to protect church ministers and others, may be illegal under European law. More worrying was Shadow Equalities Minister Yvette Cooper’s comment. She said: ‘[An] individual’s views within an individual faith group was not something that should be a protected characteristic in the Equality Act’. That statement invites many questions about how ministers in an ‘opt in’ denomination would fare if they refused to marry a same-sex couple. Laws formed by one party can easily be changed when another comes into government, and perhaps this hints at where the Marriage Bill may go in the future. Many of the responses drew to mind the comments made about the competing rights of B&B owners and gay couples. The reassurances in the Marriage Bill echo those made, and subsequently reneged upon, a number of years ago.
Although MPs were given a free vote on the Bill itself, there was a three-line whip on the process the Bill now takes through Parliament. MPs followed up the first vote by passing a procedure that will see the next stage of debate take place not in the Commons, where media scrutiny can take place freely, but within a small government-selected group of MPs. 55 MPs defied the whip, showing just how deep opposition to this Bill is.
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