February 19, 2013 (TSR) – MPs have backed a bill to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales, including by those religious organisations which want to offer it. But what is behind the proposal, and why are Anglican churches excluded?
What has the government announced?
In its Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill – which MPs backed after its second reading in the House of Commons – the government proposes that couples who are the same sex can get married. However, the change will not be forced on religious organisations – they will have to “opt in” to holding ceremonies if they want to hold gay weddings. The bill specifies that the Church of England and Church in Wales would be banned in law from offering same-sex marriages.
Why are the Anglican Churches not included?
Ministers had already stated that legislation allowing same-sex marriages in England and Wales would not compel any religious organisation to conduct such marriages. Culture Secretary Maria Miller said the Church of England and the (Anglican) Church in Wales had stated their strong opposition to same-sex marriages. But they are not the only religious organisations to have done so. The legal ban may have the effect of protecting the Church of England from legal claims that as the Established Church it is bound to marry anyone who requests it.
How does same-sex marriage differ from civil partnership?
Civil partnership is a legal relationship exclusively for same-sex couples, distinct from marriage.
It offers the same legal treatment as marriage across a range of matters, such as inheritance, pensions provision, life assurance, child maintenance, next of kin and immigration rights.
Opposite-sex couples can opt for a religious or civil marriage ceremony, whereas a same-sex partnership is an exclusively civil procedure.
Couples in civil partnerships will be able to convert their relationships into marriages if they wish – but they will be under no obligation to do so if they would rather retain their civil partnership.
Why do campaigners want same-sex marriage?
Supporters cite a number of reasons for wanting gay marriage, including that separate civil partnerships perpetuate the notion that same-sex relationships are not as valid as heterosexual ones and that legal rights are still not exactly the same as those conferred by marriage.
Home Secretary Theresa May and Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone say: “Put simply, it’s not right that a couple who love each other and want to formalise a commitment to each other should be denied the right to marry.”
Campaigners also say there would be international recognition for same-sex marriage. They say there is no universally-accepted recognition of civil partnerships and they differ widely from one country to the next.
What assurances have been provided for religious organisations?
Mrs Miller has promised a “quadruple lock” for religious groups who oppose gay marriage, involving:
- No religious organisation or individual minister being compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises
- Making it unlawful for religious organisations or their ministers to marry same-sex couples unless their organisation’s governing body has expressly opted in to provisions for doing so
- Amending the 2010 Equality Act to ensure no discrimination claim can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple
- The legislation explicitly stating that it will be illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry same-sex couples
What has this got to do with the Church of England’s status as the official state church?
The Church of England is the established church in England – its own Canon Law is part of the law of the land.
One of its canons states that marriage is in its nature a union of “one man and one woman”. This will remain in force, says the government.
The Church had warned that, had Parliament changed the definition of marriage, this could have called into question the “status and effect of the canonical provisions that set out the Church’s doctrine of marriage as being between one man and one woman”.
The government would thus have been overlooking “the implications of what is proposed for the position of the established Church”.
Could the legalisation of gay marriage have led to the disestablishment of the Church?
The Church had warned that it could.
If the legal position ended up so that same-sex marriage could no longer be limited to civil ceremonies, it says, “the whole range of rights and duties that exist in relation to marriage and the Church of England would have to be re-examined”.
“The ultimate outcome for both Church and State would be quite uncertain,” it says.
Where do other Churches and religions stand on the issue?
The vice-president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Archbishop Peter Smith, had said in response to the government’s consultation: “In the interest of upholding the uniqueness of marriage as a civil institution for the common good of society, we strongly urge the government not to proceed with legislative proposals which will enable all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony.”
Following the government’s initial announcement of its outline plans on 11 December, the archbishop, along with Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, said opponents of gay marriage should lobby MPs “clearly, calmly and forcefully, and without impugning the motives of others”.
The Muslim Council of Great Britain has said it is against the proposals, calling them “unnecessary and unhelpful”.
Among Jews, The Liberal and Reform synagogues support gay marriage while the United synagogue opposes it. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, meanwhile, has yet to comment on the proposals.
Lord Singh, head of the Network of Sikh Organisations, has said gay marriage would “dilute” the definition of marriage in religious scriptures.
Quakers have campaigned in favour of same-sex marriage and will allow ceremonies to take place on their premises.
Where do the coalition parties stand on the issue?
Plans to legalise same-sex marriage have divided the Conservative Party, and more Tory MPs voted against the bill than voted for it.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he believes same-sex marriages should be allowed in churches – but only if there is a “100%” guarantee that no church, synagogue or mosque would be forced to hold one against their wishes.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said the legislation was a triumph for his party, which has championed the plans. Most Labour MPs, including Ed Miliband, also support the move.
What is the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland?
There are currently no plans for similar legislation in Northern Ireland.
There are already plans for a bill to allow same-sex marriage in Scotland. The policy was announced by the Scottish Government in 2011, following a public consultation on the issue.
The SNP government intends to introduce legislation, called the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill, at Holyrood shortly.
There is cross-party support at Holyrood for the proposed legislation. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said there would be a “conscience” vote in the Scottish Parliament, allowing MSPs to vote freely on the bill.
He has also reiterated that no part of the religious community would be forced to hold same-sex weddings in churches.