Liberal Democrat MPs to be given free vote on all aspects of Same Sex Marriage Bill

Rumours reach my ears of a surprise decision at last night’s Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Meeting. The Same Sex Marriage Bill comes back to the Commons next Monday for two days of debate on a number of amendments.

At Second Reading in February, no votes were whipped. Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael stepped out of the shadows to explain why to Lib Dem Voice readers.

The view of my parliamentary colleagues that came up time and again was that they supported equal marriage and were keen to see it on the statute book. They wanted, in fact, not just to support the bill but to be seen to support it because they do and not because they have been told to. Incidentally no MP who spoke in the discussion last night opposed the idea of equal marriage. That is not to say that a few of my colleagues do not have significant concerns about the proposal as I know that some do. I strongly suspect that any colleague who does harbour doubts would not have these doubts addressed just by the application of an instruction to the vote.

He made it clear that decision only applied to the actual Second Reading vote, not on every single vote on the Bill:

For any other vote to be a free vote there would have to be a genuine element of conscience. Merely being a vote on this bill will not automatically make it a free vote.

My understanding is that it was  initially suggested that votes on the Report stage proceed along the same lines. Genuine issues of conscience would be free votes while votes on the more toxic amendments proposed by the more socially conservative elements on the Government benches would be whipped.

A number of MPs opposed this course of action and their wish that all votes should be unwhipped, including those on obviously wrecking amendments, won the day. These are not necessarily the same people as those who opposed it in February. Nor should we assume that wanting a free vote is  the same as signalling an intent to for any particular amendments.

The Parliamentary Party was whipped to deliver many aspects of policy which make activists very uncomfortable – secret courts, aspects of welfare reform and tuition fees to name but a few. I expect people will be surprised that free votes have been given on matters which should be easy for Liberal Democrats to reject.

Let’s take a look at some of the amendments which will now be subject to a free vote:

No school shall be under any duty as a result of the guidance issued under subsection 1A to promote or endorse an understanding of the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children that runs contrary to the designated religious character of that school.

Don’t you think that’s got more than a look of its Daddy about it?  Remember the iniquitous Section 28 that we campaigned so long and hard against?

A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

Then there’s the amendment which suggests that this measure should be put in a referendum on the same day as the General Election. That’s clearly a wrecking amendment and no Liberal Democrat should expect to be allowed to vote for it.

And to cap it all, there’s an amendment to exempt registrars who object to carrying out same sex marriages from having to do so. If you are going to work as a public servant, you have to serve all of the public with services they are legally entitled to seek. Imagine the entirely justified outcry if someone said they wanted to opt out of conducting inter-racial marriages. This is no different.

You can find all the documents and amendments, including some very helpful ones filed by our MPs, including Julian Huppert, here.

The Bill already has so many protections for religious organisations who don’t want to carry out same sex marriage ceremonies. It’s not just belt and braces. We have superglue, staples and sellotape too. The Scottish Bill is much more liberal with perfectly adequate protections. The end result is the same north and south of the Border. No religious body will be compelled to marry two people of the same gender if they don’t want to.

I know that many party members have been contacting MPs to ask them to support the Bill. They may not be aware that these particular amendments are proving so controversial and may therefore wish to particularly address these issues in their communications.

If this issue is important to you and you want to get in touch with our MPs, Stephen Tall helpfully told us how they voted the last time round so that may help you to prioritise your contacts.

The Bill passed with a 225 vote majority the last time. We can’t be complacent that it will be passed unencumbered by silly amendments, though. As it heads to the Lords, the larger the majority, the greater the momentum it has behind it, the greater the impetus for the Upper House to pass it without inserting its own set of wrecking amendments.

Update: A tweet from Mary Clarkson, a Labour Oxford City Councillor, indicates that Ed Miliband may whip Labour MPs to support the Bill.

This is backed up by a story in the Guardian from earlier this week.

* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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26 Comments

  • This set if votes on the third reading are highly significant for Liberal Democrats and the actions of our MPs will be under huge scrutiny. In particular how MPs vote on individual amendments will tell us a lot about where people are on these issues.

    I am optimistic that the legislation will pass through to the Lords but remained deeply concerned just at how some of our MPs are falling for the concerns of churches and conservative pressure groups. The reality is that churches and faiths who oppose same sex marriage will be unaffected by this legislation – they have opted themselves out.

    So on Tuesday with any luck our MPs will do us proud and enable this legislation to proceed with a ringing endorsement of support…

    Ed Fordham, Vice Chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats

  • I can live with the free vote as it’ll help me and no doubt other liberals decide which Lib Dem MPs to help in the run-up to the next election. Vote against equal marriage and an MP can go knock on doors on their own.

  • Worth repeating what I’ve said before – MPs keen to support religious freedom should be voting *in favour* of the Bill, as it would give liberal Jews, Unitarians and Quakers the freedom to conduct same sex marriages which they’ve asked for.

    It’s good if MPs take care to scrutinise details to protect other people’s freedoms, including religious ones. I hope they don’t forget that the biggest protection to religious freedom is the passage of the Bill, as otherwise they’re voting to make what those of several religions have asked for illegal. That wouldn’t be protecting religious freedom, it would be opposing it.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th May '13 - 8:40pm

    Tolerance works both ways. I’ve always been in favour of gay marriage, but I respect those who aren’t.

  • My marriage was a gay affair. Married life, however. . . . :-(

  • I’m sick and tired of gay people staying out all night, partying, living the life of Riley, when hetero people are expected to get married and live lives of misery. Equality demands that the burden of marriage be shared by all…

  • Helen Tedcastle 15th May '13 - 9:43pm

    Good. The issue of redefining marriage is a conscience issue.

    “No school shall be under any duty as a result of the guidance issued under subsection 1A to promote or endorse an understanding of the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children that runs contrary to the designated religious character of that school.”

    This is perfectly fine. Why should a school with a religious character and ethos go against its values and principles to promote something which is against their values and principles? Forcing such schools to go against their principles is deeply illiberal.

  • Adrian Trett 15th May '13 - 10:34pm

    For avoidance of any doubt, as the Parliamentary Party has decided on a free vote on all the amendments to the Same-sex Marriage Bill.
    Every Liberal Democrat MP will be scrutinised to the nth degree by LGBT+ , and if some choose to vote on amendments against 1) our Party Policy (allowing religious freedom for those religions that want to celebrate same-sex marriage 2) the principle of Bill or 3) to choose religious dogma over equality then those Members of Parliament will need to have a serious re-think as (Ed Fordham) Vice Chair has already stated, he and I remain deeply concerned at how some of our MPs seem to be pandering to churches and conservative pressure groups.
    Let’s hope that our MPs are taking heed of our very fair and subtle warnings and do us proud to enable the legislation to proceed to the Lords.

    Adrian Trett, Chair LGBT+ Liberal Democrats

  • marriage equality is a matter of human rights, and so it will be disappointing indeed if MPs or peers use their own religious observance as a fig leaf for not supporting it.

  • Here we go again…. Very pleased to hear these will be free votes, and I hope MPs with genuine concerns will be able to resist some of the bullying that is happening on this issue. There remain a minority of Lib Dems who are not on the same page here, and some of the ‘conservative’ amendments (particularly relating to safeguards for individuals, rather than institutions which are helpful) would improve the bill in my view.

  • Helen Tedcastle 15th May '13 - 11:00pm

    Mark Pack
    “… it would give liberal Jews, Unitarians and Quakers the freedom to conduct same sex marriages which they’ve asked for..”

    Interesting that this Bill gives a tiny minority of even smaller religious groups ‘freedom’ ie: those with minimal ritual and structure, heterodox doctrines and which run barely if any schools.

    Meanwhile Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians (all the main denominations – Catholic Anglican, Methodist, Eastern Orthodox) views are ignored. So much for religious freedom for the vast, vast number of religious communities in the UK.

  • I reckon any marriage which has ‘same sex’ as its basis is likely to founder early on. Variety is the spice of life!

    I think you mean Monogender marriage!

  • “Meanwhile Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians (all the main denominations – Catholic Anglican, Methodist, Eastern Orthodox) views are ignored.”

    Of course they aren’t. All these groups are being offered precisely the same right that is being extended to the groups you seek to dismiss as a “tiny minority” – the right to decide whether or not they wish to conduct same-sex marriages.

    I suspect what you are really complaining about is that these religious groups are being denied the right to dictate how those who don’t share their faith should lead their lives – in other words they are being denied the right to impose their religious beliefs on others. If you really see that as a cause for complaint, you are in serious need of a lesson in what liberalism means.

  • Helen, what do you mean by “heterodox doctrines”? Heterodoxy is a matter of a point of view. Some Catholics consider the Church of England “heterodox” for not accepting transubstantiation, and conversely, most Protestants think Catholics are “heterodox” for doing so. Jews consider Christians “heterodox” for believing that Jesus was a divine Messiah, and Muslims think Jews are “heterodox” for not accepting either Jesus or Muhammad as prophets. Everybody’s heterodox to somebody else.

    You don’t get to put down other religions based on your sense of their so-called heterodoxy, or the number of schools they may or may not run, or what you perceive to be their ritual or structure. You can’t measure every other religion by the measure of your religion, and say that those which most measure your own get extra privileges or deserve to have their faith taken more seriously than those which disagree with yours. In the eyes of the law, religions have to be counted equally, regardless of their numbers or whether they are more or less like your religion. And if there are differences between religions on what sort of social morality the law ought to impose, the liberal response has to be to favour the policies that allow the greatest personal freedom that doesn’t cause harm. That principle has nothing to do with one’s personal opinion about one religion or another; indeed, it’s very liberal to favour the rights of others to freedoms which one oneself would never consider using.

  • Richard Church 16th May '13 - 9:20am

    The bill gives freedom to Liberal Jews, Quakers and Unitarians to conduct same sex weddings, but not Humanists,who currently cannot conduct any weddings.

    I hope our MP’s will back an amendment supported by Julian Huppert and Stephen Williams to allow humanist officiants to conduct legal wedding ceremonies. This is already the case in Scotland, where humanists are already conducting more wedding ceremonies than Jews, Quakers or Unitarians.

  • @Helen – my understanding is that the “orthodox” religions can still choose not to celebrate gay marriage if they do not wish to do so. However, those religions which do want to – and those which may change their mind in the future – should be allowed to. This is exactly the same as the Church of England refusing point blank to marry divorcees, whilst the Church of Scotland is happy to allow it at the minister’s discretion.

    On the original post, however, I could understand why the second reading was not whipped on the basis of Alistair Carmichael’s comments. Can’t understand why the third reading isn’t, though – perhaps the Chief Whip might like to come on here again to explain?

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th May '13 - 11:53pm

    @Keith Legg: religious communities and others object to the term marriage being redefined in the first place, so opting in or out of gay marriage is not the main issue. The concern is that faith schools will be forced to teach about something they do not recognise as a valid idea ( because of their understanding of what marriage is) – are we going to see teachers suspended because they object in conscience terms to teaching that gay marriage means the same as male-female marriage?

    @ David – heterodox is only ‘just a point of view’ if one looks at religious teachings from the outside and surveys them as phenomena.. My real point is that although the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews are very noble communities, they should not be held up as equivalent to other groups or used as reasons for allowing gay marriage, as they are not representative of the wider Christian or Jewish communities. They are very different in numerous ways.

    If politicians want to alienate the mainstream religious communities and get the small minorities on board – fine, that’s what they’re doing.

    @Chris: religious communities argue passionately against redefining marriage yet the Government presses ahead with a flawed Bill – so yes, on that they have been ignored and they are afraid that they will be forced to go against their conscience and long-established beliefs unless robust and stringent safeguards are put in place.

    I suppose they think that the Gay rights lobby will not stop until they have forced the issue – whether that is true or not, remains to be seen.

  • @Helen Tedcastle — “although the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews are very noble communities, they should not be held up as equivalent to other groups”
    The only reason I can see that you want the law to enshrine a double standard that favors your religion and disfavors other religions is that you are a partisan for your religion and want to see government supporting it. But the law cannot take cognizance of such religious passions any more than it takes cognizance of local passions for this or that football team. It’s not the business, it *should not* be the business of government to decide which religions are real and which are fake, which are “churches” or “ecclesiastical communities” or anything else — the law and government ought to be studiously neutral and not treat religious entities as anything other than “phenomena,” regardless of the personal beliefs (or nonbeliefs) of those in government.

  • Kevin McNamara 18th May '13 - 1:47pm

    i agree with it being a free vote – let’s see how our mp’s have to vote when they haven’t got a three-line whip to hide behind. those ones who show themselves as illiberal on what should be straightforward issues will not enjoy my support in 2015.

  • Jessica Ottowell 18th May '13 - 3:16pm

    I’m concerned that we are still permitting so called religion get in the way of rearing this nation’s children in a manner that breeds a LGBT friendly environment (or for that matter, educates properly, especially in the areas of science and sex education).

    While I’m quite happy to allow adults to believe in whatever they like, I feel that, even as a liberal, it’s long past time that we had a intervention in this regard. Impressionable children do not have the choice to ignore the brainwashing imposed by these religious schools. I, sadly, have first hand knowledge of this, going to such a school where homophobic, racist and intolerant views were hammered in to impressionable minds at a early age.

    Ps sorry if this seems a little broken, the playbook isn’t working its best today

  • Eddie Sammon 18th May '13 - 3:42pm

    I agree Jessica, after the amendment asking faith schools not to teach equal marriage, I thought how unfair it was that faith schools have a monopoly in local areas.

    And no the answer is not to introduce competition, it is to ban faith schools. If parents want to bring up their children in a certain religion then they can do so in their spare time. How is it fair for atheist or parents of other religions to have to send their children to Christian schools. Never mind LGBT.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th May '13 - 3:45pm

    Damn I hate being two post Eddie, but I want to add that private schools being faith based is fine, but I don’t think it is for taxpayer funded schools.

  • “religious communities argue passionately against redefining marriage yet the Government presses ahead with a flawed Bill – so yes, on that they have been ignored …”

    The conservative religious groups have been making so much noise about this issue that it would scarcely have been possible to ignore them! What’s happened is that they have lost the argument, which is something very different.

  • The letter by Tory activists to the prime minister reaches new levels of hysteria:
    “Muslim parents will be robbed of their right to raise their children according to their beliefs, as gay relationships are taught as something normal to their primary-aged children.”
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22585093

    Are religious people really “robbed of their beliefs” if civil law does not coincide with religious teachings?

    If so, what on earth should be done when two religions have different teachings?

    Does the fact that pork can be legally sold and eaten in this country infringe the religious freedoms of Muslims and Jews? Can they raise their children according to their beliefs when teachers tell them that it’s legal to eat pork?

  • Tony Greaves 19th May '13 - 4:56pm

    The Bill is due to have its Second Reading in the Lords on Monday 3rd June.

    We have a curious party whip. Three-line (quite rare for LDs in the Lords) but a free vote.

    You can work that out for yourselves.

    Tony Greaves

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 20th May '13 - 9:10am

    In support of Adrian Trett’s comments I too “remain deeply concerned at how some of our MPs seem to be pandering to churches and conservative pressure groups”, for all we are doing is allowing deep rooted bigotry against same sex relationships to be legitimised.

    Although I fully respect the right of everyone to hold their own beliefs, religious dogma’s cannot in my opinion be allowed to trump basic human rights for ALL “men and women of marriageable age [should] have the right to marry and to start a family.”

    While in principle I favour a free vote, for it will allow those MP’s with a genuine issue of conscience to abstain, rather than having to find themselves needing to be absent as a result of some unforeseen and urgent domestic situation, I am concerned that some within our Party will actually acquiesce to the tabloids and the growing Ukip sentiments and choose chasing future votes over doing the right thing.

    I would further remind those MP’s who are being won over by the less than tolerant minority ethnic religious opinion that the same proportion of minority ethnic communities are also Gay, and by acquiescing to the very vocal narrow-minded opinions we will actually be further punishing minority ethnic Gay individuals as well.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat – Vice Chair

    (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz “I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.”)

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