11 Liberal Democrat MPs vote for registrars to be exempt from marrying same sex couples

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has made fairly easy progress through the Commons tonight. After a Government/Labour compromise on a review for extending civil partnerships to opposite sex couples, and the heavy defeat or withdrawal of amendments, including “son of Section 28”, it looks as though many of the barriers to this Bill’s passage have been removed.

There is still a further day of debate tomorrow, though, and further amendments to be debated.

One of the amendments discussed today, defeated by 340 votes to 150 in favour, was to allow registrars to exempt themselves from marrying same sex couples. Eleven Liberal Democrat MPs voted in favour of this. They were:

Norman Baker

Alan Beith

Gordon Birtwistle

Paul Burstow

Tim Farron

Andrew George

Duncan Hames

Simon Hughes

John Pugh

Sarah Teather

Steve Webb

A few early comments from members. Firstly Fernando North:

I am remembering their names as I will remind them at election time why I will not help reelect them. #ThisIsPersonal. This may be a matter of conscience for the MPs involved but for me it is intensively personal. Their conscience is denying my happiness in defiance of the Harm Principle-that most sacred of Liberal Principles.

Roger Reeves’ husband Andrew died almost two years ago. As London Campaigns Officer, he helped get Sarah Teather elected. Roger said tonight:

I am absolutely shocked by this. A marriage is to one you love. No matter what sex they are.

Geoffrey Payne, a regular commenter on this site said:

 I am surprised and disappointed that there are so many. I wonder if any abstained as well. I can’t see any of them joining the Tories on other issues they are usually good. Good being a relative term compared to their colleagues. They all supported secret courts of course.

Miranda Roberts said:

Surely we believe that all council employees should provide services to all residents without regard to gender, race, age etc? Horrible to see Lib Dems saying that sexuality should be used as grounds to deny people access to a government service.

Stephen Glenn added:

Imagine if council housing officers denied same-sex couples social housing?

Or a DWP clerk refused to let a gay person sign on? Which seeing as I’ve applied to a fair number of LGBT bodies while looking for work would have been known (guessed).

These are public servants and in some places especially the rural ones there may only be one registrar for miles around or on the island. If that person objects people are denied the fully legal service.

There are two sides to every story, though.  Mike Bird said:

We all seemed to agree that religious organisations shouldn’t be forced to conduct same-sex marriages, so it seems odd to see a lot of anger at Tim and others for allowing people in the public sector to make the same decisions. I don’t see why people who’ve ended up in different lines of work should have different religious freedoms unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Chris Wiggin, also in support said:

If you want MPs to vote a certain way then they should be whipped. Decision not to whip should be questioned, not the MPs themselves who were told they could vote as they wish. There was criticism last week of the decision not to whip, as there was at the previous vote.

We don’t want to do too much of the counting of the poultry while still sitting on the eggs, but it does look like we’ll have something to celebrate tomorrow, given the large majorities against the “anti” amendments tonight. There will, however, be considerable disappointment amongst many activists that eleven of our MPs voted for this amendment. In their defence, they will no doubt argue that the people seeking the service wouldn’t be denied it as another alternative would be found. Whether they could guarantee that in rural areas, though, I’m not so sure.

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

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  • Well, I’ve stuck with the coalition so far … but eleven of our MPs voting in favour of bigotry? I wonder if this isn’t just asking too much of a run-of-the-mill liberal …

  • The Lib Dems have delivered on Equal marriage. Be pleased.

  • Helen Tedcastle 20th May '13 - 11:05pm

    Taking a stand on a point of conscience – well done to those 11 MPs.

  • Tony Greaves 20th May '13 - 11:05pm

    Most if not all of these MPs are active Christians and no doubt were thinking of the rights of fellow Christians and others with strong moral principled positions against same sex marriage.

    What I find sad is that people who feel strongly in favour of same sex marriage can get quite so angry and intolerant when a great victory is now in sight. As before I suggest that people on both sides just develop more tolerance and understanding of the other points of view.

    Of course it still has to navigate its way through the Lords which will be interesting.

    Tony Greaves

  • Really sad to see so many Lib Dem MPs vote in a way which seems so against the Lib Dem grain. Free vote or no, we all hope that our MPs – who so many of us work so hard to get elected – vote in a way which just does not resonate with the vast majority of the party.

    For anyone who has decided to withhold support for the MPs who voted this way, Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey & Wood Green is more than worthy of your time and effort, having been completely instrumental in making equal marriage a reality 🙂

    Donations to the H&WG war-chest in this Labour-facing London target are certainly welcomed, I’m sure!!

  • Helen Tedcastle 20th May '13 - 11:13pm

    Thank you Tony Greaves for a sane and thoroughly Liberal response to this issue.

  • Another supporter of the 11 MPs here. I’m delighted that marriage should be equally available to all, but I don’t see the extension of liberty in requiring state employees to choose between their religious convictions and their job. People are letting their entirely correct desire for equality cloud thoughts of the liberty of another minority, which is sad.

  • Paul In Twickenham 20th May '13 - 11:16pm

    How delightful it must have been to walk into the division lobby arm-in-arm with the likes of Christopher “Buggers muddle” Chope, Gerald “aggressive homosexual community” Howarth and Andrew “Viva General Pinochet” Rosindell.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th May '13 - 11:19pm

    Someone close to me once lived in a far flung part of the country where the local GP refused to prescribe contraception to unmarried women. Can you imagine what that must have been like? The health board got round it by sending an infrequent van round to deal with that – but there was no help available in between times unless you went on a very long journey along a very scary single track road. This is why people who are paid by the state should deliver legally available state services to all who need them.

    Tony, where is the anger and intolerance in my post? And have you always expressed total agreement with the way ur MPs vote?:)

  • Eddie Sammon 20th May '13 - 11:20pm

    I’m afraid it has to be said but people who spit venom and abuse at those Lib Dem public servants who wish to keep marriage religious simply aren’t being level headed.

    I’m in favour of gay marriage, but I would have been very tempted to vote for the amendment on equality for civil partnerships and I would have told the illiberal whip and the bullying opponents where to go.

  • I agree with @Fernando – sadly, no-one on that list will be getting my help or my vote in the future

  • Paul In Twickenham 20th May '13 - 11:31pm

    @Glyn Ley – That’s very interesting. This is a real question, because I do not know the answer : are the owners of hotels that were in operation before changes to the law still allowed to tell gay couples that they cannot share a bed in their premises?

  • Even leaving aside the discrimination aspect (which is a horrific precedent to set in any area of public service), the concern for Registrars ‘whose jobs have changed’ seems somewhat twee in this day and age. It’s the 21st century; jobs change all the time, and the ability to change and adapt to them is increasingly a prerequisite of even staying afloat in the modern workforce..

    Also, as someone who actually has resigned from a job on a point of conscience (and who has fortunately grown up somewhat since then), I can only say, “wusses”. If standing up for your beliefs doesn’t cost you anything then there’s nothing to weed out the self-centred and petulant from people holding genuine conviction and willing to stand by them.

  • If they can not vote for this what is the point of being a Liberal. What does it even mean to these people.

  • A free vote is a free vote; perhaps people looking to vent frustrations should aim at Alistair Carmichael instead.

    However I must confess that I don’t think I’d have voted for this amendment, even as someone with concerns about the bill as a whole. If you are paid by the state as a registrar and the law permits gay marriage, it would be awkward and discriminatory to only register m/f couples. Other jobs are available.

    Well said Tony Greaves as well – tone spot on.

  • @PaulInTwickenham – they can refuse anyone a bed in their private home. If they are operating a business the terms have to be the same for everyone, so no they can’t refuse.

  • @Paul In Twickenham Don’t believe so, no. And I wouldn’t want them to be (or registrars). Although I believe the hotel owners in the infamous case in Cornwall have now changed their hotel into a ‘Christian retreat’ to get round the law!


    I don’t know why the 11 voted as they did, I was just trying to put forward that there may be a reason and, you know, someone should try and ask them why before jumping down their throats. After you’ve heard from them, then judge…

  • Caron – while not in any way defending the actions of that GP, is there not a difference between contraception which could be required on a regular basis at potentially short notice (so difficult to cover by shipping in outside resource) and marriage which is very unlikely to be either? It’s the problem of blanket solutions; the world is more complicated than that and there’s often an edge case which trips things up.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st May '13 - 1:14am

    Religious people don’t even feel they can be members of our party – what kind of intolerant liberalism is this?:


    We need to buck up quick and begin to respect all minorities, not just Lib Dem special interest groups.

    Marriage is just a vow and should have no influence whatsoever on people’s finances. To be honest, who cares if one group wants to have marriages and the other civil partnerships? We need to stop making out that marriage is some sort of great virtuous thing that we should all strive for. Agree or disagree, but I really don’t see the evils of the opposing positions.

  • Tom Nicholson 21st May '13 - 1:19am

    “The underlying problem in any open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom in which conscientious and religious freedom has to be regarded with appropriate seriousness, is how far such democracy can and must go in allowing members of religious communities to define for themselves which laws they will obey and which not. Such a society can cohere only if all its participants accept that certain basic norms and standards are binding. Accordingly, believers cannot claim an automatic right to be exempted by their beliefs from the laws of the land.”

    Supreme Court of South Africa in Christian Education SA v Minister of Education (2000)

    This is about dignity – it is a fundamentally an attack on an LGB person’s dignity to permit registrars to opt out of providing them with a service, discriminating against them in the process – religious freedom is very important but when the manifestation of that belief harms another group’s dignity, it is just not acceptable.

    I am shocked to see so many Lib Dem MPs support this backward amendment – and those who say that because it is a free vote it is fine for them to vote this way miss the point. It is because it is a free vote that their personal decision to support this measure reflects so negatively. Disappointing to say the least.

  • David Evans 21st May '13 - 1:20am

    Well said Tony,

    Tolerance is one thing that is sadly missing in a large number of these posts from people who claim to be liberal, but apparently only when they agree with it. I find it sad also.

    As for Caron’s point “Whether they could guarantee that in rural areas, though, I’m not so sure;” many public services can’t be guaranteed in rural areas now, some of which are even more fundamental than gay marriage.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st May '13 - 2:21am

    George, with respect, not everything in life is equal – being against same sex marriage is not equal to racism. I mean if we think everything should be absolutely equal, then why don’t we change the name of Christmas?

    I suppose my message is that we need to relax a bit and understand that enjoying and respecting traditions is not necessarily a bad thing. This insight into the conservative mentality might help people feel less venomous towards conservatives.

    I know I can be a bit hypocritical because I evidently get wound up about intolerance as much as those who share a different definition of tolerance, but I do think we need to understand others a bit more, me included, as hard as it is.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 21st May '13 - 2:23am

    Homophobia v Racism?

    Sorry no difference in my opinion, it is plain bigotry.

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

  • Andreas Christodoulou 21st May '13 - 6:52am

    I want to see each and every one of these 11 MP’s make a proposal to allow registrars to be allowed to opt out of marrying black people if they for some reason think they should have fewer rights than white people too.

    Would it be OK for doctors to refuse a gay man treatment? A mechanic to turn away people based on their sexuality? Of course not.

    But it’s OK to decline to serve homosexuals even when that’s actually in your job description. Yes, they had a free vote and yes, they’re free to vote this way, I’m not ashamed that I get quite angry about people voting in favour for other people to discriminate against other people. I’d be ashamed if I didn’t.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st May '13 - 7:28am

    But if you believed in God, and God said you shouldn’t do this, but the Lib Dem activists said you should, who would you listen to?

  • Eddie Sammon 21st May '13 - 7:31am

    I’m not trying to make you change your opinion, just trying to reduce the anger from both sides of the debate.

  • Registrars are state employees. The functions of state should be secular and treat all the same irregardless of orientation, race, gender, disability.

  • David Blake 21st May '13 - 7:57am

    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 noone shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

    So how does this fit with the actions of the 11?

  • Zero sympathy for registrars who want to opt out. Jobs change. If you dont like it, get a new one and someone more suited can take your place. Zero time for these 11. Im fed up with the way we as a country pander to xenophobes, racists, homophobes and there are MPs who want to enshrine this behaviour in law, deeply disappointed. It is only the haters that still receive tolerance.

  • Mark Inskip 21st May '13 - 8:06am

    @Eddie Sammon “But if you believed in God, and God said you shouldn’t do this, but the Lib Dem activists said you should, who would you listen to?”
    If your god teaches prejudice or discrimination then in a liberal society I would have thought the answer to what you should believe and how you should act is obvious.

  • Paul In Twickenham 21st May '13 - 8:14am

    @Eddie Salmon. The Judea-Christian bible is filled with instructions. I do not need to list them as the arguments about Leviticus are well-rehearsed. Yet most people of faith simply choose to ignore those clear directives. Should we have exclusions for registrars to not marry people who are wearing polycotton shirts or intend to have prawn sandwiches at the reception?

    It would be interesting to see an analysis of just why it is that the religious right (because it always is the religious right) chooses to get so worked up about a particular subset of biblical proscriptions.

  • I’m still not seeing many people address the substantive point of the opt-outs for religious ceremonies already written into the bill. Lots of people are comparing the situation to race, but are seemingly happy for religious organisations not to conduct ceremonies: does that mean they would be fine for churches to refuse interracial marriage too?

    From my perspective I assumed the choice on the part of religious groups was there as an individual freedom, to prevent actual people from officiating a service that they did not agree with, rather than some sort of institutional privilege for established churches! Those were the grounds on which I supported it anyway. It therefore makes sense to me that the same is afforded to registrars.

    Is it really about where the person’s paycheck comes from? That’s what decides how wide-ranging their religious freedom at work is?

  • Grammar Police 21st May '13 - 8:22am

    @David Blake
    To answer your question, I suspect the 11 would say it fit with their right to respect their right to freedom of conscience.
    I agree with Andreas that we would not allow state employees to discriminate in other ways.
    I don’t like it, but I suppose some kind of ‘transitional’ arrangement, where registrars employed before the coming into force of the equal marriage legislation can opt out of performing such duties, is probably best. New registrars have no such excuse.

  • “But if you believed in God, and God said you shouldn’t do this, but the Lib Dem activists said you should, who would you listen to?”

    If I started hearing voices I would treat what they said with great caution.

    But assuming that’s not what you’re talking about – assuming I was a fundamentalist believer who thought God had certain commandments which he wanted imposed on everyone regardless of their beliefs, then I would have the honesty to acknowledge that I was a theocrat, and I wouldn’t try to pretend that I was either a liberal or a democrat.

  • “I don’t like it, but I suppose some kind of ‘transitional’ arrangement, where registrars employed before the coming into force of the equal marriage legislation can opt out of performing such duties, is probably best.”

    Considering that registrars have been registering the births of children born out of wedlock since 1837, remarrying divorcees in large numbers since the middle of the 20th century and performing civil partnerships for same-sex couples for nearly a decade, frankly it is difficult to imagine that any of them are religious fundamentalists with a fanatical devotion to the traditional concept of marriage for life.

    Amid all the media ballyhoo raised by the ‘no’ campaigners, is there any evidence that any registrars at all have requested such an opt-out? Or are these MPs just sending a signal to some of their constituents and/or financial sponsors?

  • Richard Church 21st May '13 - 8:52am

    Marriage in a registry office is not a religious ceremony. The Church of England refuses to marry divorcees. Has a registrar ever wanted to refuse to marry a divorcee on religious grounds?

    Will the 11 also support the right of those who object to state funded faith schools to have that proportion of their taxes directed elsewhere?

    Will the 11 support the right of those with a religious objection to war to have the proportion of their tax spent on defence directed elsewhere?

    Allowing people to opt out of public duties opens a huge can of worms, however we would probably all support the right to conscientious objection to military service.

  • Trevor Stables 21st May '13 - 9:00am

    From now on all people being recruited to be “Registrars” need to be asked at Interview and on the application form if they have any religious or other objections to marrying anyone …….before being employed.

  • @Caron – that’s the sort of example which is crucial in this argument. In a more urban setting, if the GP objected then he could – would have to – refer the patient to another GP, but where there’s no alternative then he has the final say. Some have compared it to abortion – which, of course, takes place in hospitals so again when there’s another nurse or doctor who doesn’t have the same objections this is less of a problem.

    It all sums up to me why we need to seriously look at the French model of marriage. In France, there are two ceremonies which need to be completed; firstly the legal ceremony, conducted by a State official which effectively ties the couple together. Second comes the religious ceremony – if that’s what you want to do.

    On Sarah Teather, while I disagree with how she voted strongly, it may well be worth reading the whole Catholic Herald article as it then becomes clearer why she voted the way she did. She’s clearly given it a lot of thought.


  • As a Christian I applaud the legislation as a good step forwards and my main problem is that it denies the CofE not that it compels people to marry same sex couples.

  • In France there are Mayors who will refuse to carry out same sex weddings. Existing registrars should be permitted to decline. New applicants should not have the option-they know what they are. Going in to.

  • Grammar Police 21st May '13 - 9:58am

    @Chris – try Lillian Ladele, Islington Registrar http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19467554

  • Eleven! – very disappointing, I expected a few but this is many more than anticipated. And I am very unhappy that the eleven have chosen to vote this way. Andreas Christodulu and Paul in Twickenham (declaration of interest, he is my husband) identify the flimsy nature of the ‘opt-out’ supporters position.

    However I have been in the party for 30+ years and the eleven are part of my extended family; I have worked very closely with some of them over extended periods and have great respect for most of them. I’m not going to let a disagreement over a single vote get in the way – and I will continue to regard them as friends.

    Far better to focus on ensuring the bill’s safe passage through the Lords

  • Richard Wingfield 21st May '13 - 11:16am

    I agree that we should focus on the positives here. The Lib Dems have championed equal marriage in government and there are some really outstanding people in the party who are making it happen: Nick Clegg (who was the first party leader to call for same sex marriage) and Lynne Featherstone in particular.

    Like others, I am disappointed to see so many of our MPs support the principle that public servants can opt out of their duties on the basis of their religious belief. These are state employees, paid for by the taxpayers to provide a service to society on behalf of the state. LGBT people pay their taxes just like everyone else, and public servants should not be allowed to refuse to provide those services to LGBT people for any reason. Imagine if a registrar refused to marry a divorcee, or an inter-racial couple, or a non-Christian couple on the basis of their religious beliefs. There would be outrage. It should be no different for same sex couples. If you don’t like the law of the land, don’t work for the state.

  • Peter Watson 21st May '13 - 12:29pm

    A wedding is a very special occasion for everyone involved, and all couples would prefer to be married by a registrar who is genuinely happy to be there, not by someone who is forced to officiate or give up their job. Allowing existing registrars to exempt themselves seems like a satisfactory compromise which would by its nature be temporary as over time these people would decrease in number or perhaps even soften their attitudes.

  • Does this mean that gay couples being married in a registry office can object to a certain registrar on the grounds that they are a practising christian?

    Fair’s fair, after all.

  • Caron,
    your anger and intolerance was expressed very clearly on FB when you requested responses to use in this piece, with the implication that your personal network would provide you with a selection of views weighted towards affirmation of your opinion there.

    So it’s wholly disingenuous to suggest the neutral tone of this post excuses you from Tony’s accusation – you’ve tried to pick holes in another landmark liberal victory.

    Good law is not made from exceptional cases.

  • Max Wilkinson 21st May '13 - 1:55pm

    On what other grounds, aside from sexual orientation, would it be acceptable for a registrar to refuse to conduct a service?

    Are the rights of those with a faith that is intolerant of homosexuals to be held above the rights of those who have views that would prevent them dealing with, for example, former prisoners, black people, or dog owners?

  • Eddie Sammon 21st May '13 - 3:19pm

    Mark Valladares, I was angry at first at what I see as religious intolerance, but then I calmed down after realising more that others are equally as unhappy about equal marriage tolerance. I still think we should be more tolerant towards religious objections, but who am I to say what’s right or wrong.

    And for anyone wondering, I don’t support the 11 and I’m not religious in the slightest. I just think there’s been a lot of bullying towards religious people in the party over the past few days. However the debate seems to be better today.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st May '13 - 5:50pm

    James, I think you are being unreasonable. I asked after a discussion had developed on my Facebook wall, if people would mind if their comments were used. My personal network, as you call it, has over 1000 people in it with all sorts of views on everything.

    I also specifically went out and sought comments from others to make the article balanced.

    I will be delighted when this bill passes. There is no way it would have happened without the Liberal Democrats and it’s something we can shout from the rooftops. Also, no Liberal Democrat has expressed themselves in anything other than a genuine and respectful manner, unlike many from the right wing of the Conservative party.

    Readers of this site, though, are interested in how our MPs vote on these issues. Their choices are a matter of public record and they are ultimately accountable to the party, whether they like it or not.

  • Liberal Neil 21st May '13 - 6:51pm

    I’m very proud that a Government of which the Lib Dems are part is brinigng in equal marriage.

    Those MPs supporting this amendment seem to mixing up religious marriage and civil marriage.

    Registrars presiding at marriage ceremonies only preside at civil marriage ceremonies, under the civil law as it stands, not religious ceremonies, and should understand this. Their role is not a religious one and their personal religious views shouldn’t affect how they carry out their duties.

    Those who conduct religious marriage ceremonies do have an ‘opt out’ under the proposed legislation.

  • Why stop with marriage, perhaps just as some believe registrars and religious officials should be able to deny weddings, perhaps the same people think its ok to deny funerals based on sexual orientation. . The more I think about this ammendment, the more ridiculous it appears.

  • When the law is changed to make something illegal, we don’t give opt-outs or exemptions for serving police officers to turn a blind eye to previously-legal behaviour.

    We expect them to do their job.

    Why should registrars be any different?

  • Helen Tedcastle 22nd May '13 - 12:48am

    Caron Lindasy: “…where is the anger and intolerance in my post?”

    In the sense that you do quite frequently ‘name and shame’ (I take it that is what writing out lists of those who vote the way you don’t like on LDV), and this is bound to provoke strong responses on both sides of the debate.

    Why is it that some have a problem with conscience in relation to gay marriage – it is not a cut and dried issue for many people – and it is a matter of conscience for those MPs of strong Christian and Jewish/Muslim beliefs and principles which do inform their politics, like humanism and secularism presumably, informs others.

  • I would have voted against, but I am relaxed about those who voted in favour, not least because they didn’t win.

  • Shirley Campbell 24th May '13 - 8:43am

    To true Liberals conscience is everything. True Liberals would seek to ensure that the right to act according to one’s conscience was extended to their fellows in all regards. Why does a seemingly so-called “Liberal Elite” fail to see this?

  • @Shirley – noone is going to force registrars at gunpoint to marry same sex couples. They should just get a different job. This is what happens to the 99.999% of the working population who are not registrars when our job responsibilities change. The small handful of them that have an issue with this can sue for constructive dismissal if they like.

  • Helen Tedcastle 24th May '13 - 11:22pm

    @ Alistair: Shirley is right – Liberal have traditionally valued conscience – as the redefinition of marriage is actually a big deal why not allow registrars to exercise their conscience? If you and the redefinition lobby are so confident of the rightness of your cause, why are you so reluctant to allow registrars to opt out?

    “N o one is going to force registrars at gunpoint to marry same sex couples. ” Can you guarantee that? I doubt it – I think they could be bullying cases or lives being made uncomfortable due to this – but that is a price worth paying I suppose…

    “They should just get a different job. This is what happens to the 99.999% of the working population who are not registrars when our job responsibilities change. The small handful of them that have an issue with this can sue for constructive dismissal if they like.”

    Yes, because jobs are so easy to come by these days in austerity – ridden Britain – please do try to live in the real world. For the sake of conscience, people should have no need to ‘get another job.’ Where is your compassion and sense of fairness – or is this some kind of twisted sense of vengeance for not thinking ‘the right way?’

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