Clegg: Gay marriage vote not a matter of conscience

Nick Clegg “lit the blue touchpaper” yesterday by putting forward a forthright position on gay marriage on The Andrew Marr Show:

We are not asking any person with religious convictions to sacrifice anything. We are simply saying those who want to show a lifelong commitment to each other should be able to do so.

…In the same way the civil partnerships legislation which was introduced under Labour was a whipped vote, I personally don’t think this is something which should be subject to a great free for all because we are not asking people to make a decision of conscience.”
He added: “If this was an issue that somehow the Government was proposing something that would somehow be an imposition on religion or the churches, then of course that would be a matter of conscience. We are not.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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36 Comments

  • Wouldnt itbe better to allow those religious organisations that want to be able to hold same sex marriages to do so and give all MPs a free vote?

  • Grammar Police 28th May '12 - 10:49am

    @ Simon, the proposal is already simply to remove the statutory bar on religious organisations holding same-sex marriages if they choose to – which is Clegg’s argument about why it doesn’t need to be a free vote – religious groups are still able to decide not to allow same-sex marriage.

  • Grammar Police

    That’s not correct. What’s proposed in the consultation document is this:
    “in law, marriages conducted by the Church of England, Quakers, Jews and all other religious organisations (who have registered their religious premises to host marriages) would only be legally recognised if they are between a man and a woman.”
    http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/consultations/equal-civil-marriage/consultation-document?view=Binary

    Same-sex marriages could be performed only by registrars, in a ceremony containing no religious elements.

  • Simon Titley 28th May '12 - 1:01pm

    Whether or not the vote is whipped is of only symbolic importance, since a majority of the House of Comons will vote for gay marriage regardless.

    If the vote is whipped, the few religious MPs on the Tory right who really care about this will defy the whip and vote against anyway, but the only other MPs who will join them will be some Ulster unionists.

    If the vote is not whipped, the universal support of the Liberal Democrats, Labour and nationalist MPs, plus more socially liberal Tories, will ensure a majority.

    The significance of the whip is that it indicates whether the government is taking a stand or passing the buck to the Commons.

  • Thought Nick was on fine form on Andrew Marr.

  • I asked this before, but on a post that had disappeared into the deep dark depths of the archive area, so I’ll ask again as some one may be able to answer (I apologise, it’s a bit of a nerdy question):

    At present Article 12 of the ECHR does not cover this as the Court feels that due to the historical significance of the meaning of marriage states must be given leeway. They also say that Article 14 (discrimination) can’t be used as it must be in harmony with Article 12.

    However, if the nation changes the meaning to include same sex marriage what happens under article 14? Can some one claim discrimination on not being allowed to marry in a church? (after all, they would be facing discrimination as such a claim would be in harmony with how the nation have decided to interpret marriage under Article 12).

    If they can claim discrimination then there needs to be some honesty about this and people shouldn’t be making promises that they must know can’t be kept.

  • jedibeeftrix: yes we are. Clergy are not required to preside at marriages of the divorced, either.

  • @Tim Leunig
    And as per my ECHR Q, will churches eventually be forced to conduct ceremonies? Like Jed I’m a “non-religious person pleased as punch that gays migh fancy a marriage;”, however I won’t be so pleased if this causes the name of the ECHR to be dragged through the mud yet again (as it would be because politicians would probably duck any flak).

    I think those churches that currently oppose this needs some concrete reassurance, if that can be done then it shouldn’t be to hard for those churches willing to perform the ceremonies to go ahead.

  • “And as per my ECHR Q, will churches eventually be forced to conduct ceremonies?”

    Churches aren’t public bodies (certainly not in respect of this function) so don’t fall under the HRA (s.6). If the legislation is drafted to specifically prevent churches from carrying out same sex marriages then the legislation could be found to be incompatible with the Convention but that would be a case for Parliament to consider.

    There is also Article 9 and s.13 giving particular weight to the exercise of the freedom of religion by a religious organisation.

    There is a massive difference between the state not sanctioning gay marriage and forcing individual Churches to go against their beliefs and teachings. I’d be very suprised if the ECHR went down the latter route – and even though I’m a supporter of gay marriage I’d be very worried if they did. By way of analogy I don’t think anyone has tackled the Catholic church for discrimination for refusing to (re)marry divorcees – or the several churches which will only hold a church wedding where both parties are members of that religion.

  • @Dave Page fair point on the Lords.

    I’m hoping that the consultation will result on some movement on allowing religious same sex marriage. Otherwise will those who may want a religious component to there partnership would be best of sticking with Civil Partnerships. Surely some irony there.

  • “Churches aren’t public bodies (certainly not in respect of this function) so don’t fall under the HRA (s.6). ”

    Are you sure you’ve got that the right way around? Admittedly I’m obviously not an expert etc and things change all the time, but I thought that originally churches were deemed private unless they performed a public function that would otherwise be done by the state, e.g. marriage. (see written evidence by Jack Straw in the link http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200304/jtselect/jtrights/39/39we22.htm)

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th May '12 - 10:30am

    In stating “We are simply saying those who want to show a lifelong commitment to each other should be able to do so”, Nick Clegg actually gives support to the arguments of those who are against gay marriage, because the core of the argument of the main group opposing it is that marriage is NOT just about “two people who want to show a lifelong commitment to each other”, they argue that it is primarily a commitment to share responsibility for producing and bringing up children, and that this is weakened by using the term “marriage” for relationships where there is no potential for this.

    Regardless of whether this is a valid argument or not, there is a significant group of people who feel it is. It seems to me that if this is anything, it most definitely IS a matter of conscience, as the supporters of gay marriage argue that using a different word for it, even if the same legal rights apply, is not enough – in their conscience it is harmful.

    To me, this is yet another blundering mistake by Clegg. Just who is this aimed at? Are there any LibDem MPs who would vote the other way unless whipped? I doubt there are more than one or two, if any. There is a long tradition, which Liberals used to be at the forefront of, whereby certain issues, such as those where there are strongly held religious positions, were treated as matters of conscience. Remember when the Liberal Party had amongst its MPs both the pioneer of abortion and the most prominent Parliamentarian opposing it? Yet the two worked together harmoniously because of this liberal tradition of respect for conscience.

    I believe that fundamental to liberalism is being able to see the point of view of others, even if one does not support it. That is not happening here, and I find that shameful.

  • “the core of the argument of the main group opposing it is that marriage is NOT just about “two people who want to show a lifelong commitment to each other”, they argue that it is primarily a commitment to share responsibility for producing and bringing up children, and that this is weakened by using the term “marriage” for relationships where there is no potential for this.”

    It’s an incredibly weak argument by any standards, because (as far as I know) no one is proposing that male/female couples who are unable to have children should not be allowed to marry – even in a register office!

  • @Chris_sh – there is a concept of hybrid authorities which are part private and part public. It was certainly suggested (in Aston Cantlow) that a Parochial Chuch Council could be a hybrid body in regard of public functions like marriages and burials. But that wasn’t the issue before the court and it was only really mentioned in passing. It’s very far from a decided point (even as an obiter point its only about individual PCCs rather than the whole body of the church).

    So first you’d have to give the Church public authority status (and as the link you posted above makes clear that is a pretty complex area – particuarly when you move away from the established Churches).

    Then you come up against Art 12 – which says that the right to marry is subject to the national laws governing the exercise of that right. If there was a Church exemption in any legislation then I don’t see how a Church would be operating contrary to this.

    Then you come up against Art 9 (Freedom of religion) – the effect of that would be that anyone who said there rights were infringed by the Church not marrying them would have to be balanced against the rights of the church to practice their religious beliefs. Art 9 also has the extra strength of s.13 which requires particular importance to be given to the rights in Art 9.

    The major reason why I don’t think this is an issue is that – as Tim says – no-one has brought (at least not with any success) any action claiming that their rights were infringed by church weddings not being allowed for divorcees.

  • Anyway, the thing that really did have a significant effect on the traditional view of marriage was the reform of the divorce laws in the 20th century. In comparison with that, any influence that same-sex marriage may have now will be a gnat’s bite by comparison. It really will.

  • @Hywel
    I’m not so certain that the divorce issue is such a good example, the CofE have allowed marriage in church for about 10 years (unless adultery was the cause as per Charles/Camilla) , although you have to persuade the vicar and I think that usually involves some sort of guidance sessions etc. The RC side is obviously different, you have to get the marriage annulled so that you are separated in the eyes of the church (as well as the divorce itself of course). So it can’t be said that there is a blanket ban against divorced people. As for the other churches, I don’t know – but some of those aren’t bothered about it anyway so it shouldn’t be an issue for those (hopefully).

    Again I would agree that this is a complex area, not helped by the mix of law in use for HR (Common and Civil), the ECHR in Strasbourg operate on Civil Law so they may look at our HRA and decide that the original law was meant to include marriage by religious organisations (as per the Home Secretaries statement) and therefore any new law on marriage must also be judged against this fact. In effect it is similar to what they have always said, it is up to the state to determine what marriage is, but whatever they decide must act in harmony with the other articles.

    Part of the problem is that the politicians kicked the whole issue of what is a public body over to the judges (with some justification in certain areas), but that has left a lot of uncertainty over various issues (not just marriage), I actually think that you may have to alter the HRA to exclude churches as being classed as a public body for the purposes of marriage (just imho of course). The benefit of that would also mean that those churches that are willing to marry same sex couples can do so, the law could leave it to their conscience as to whether it contravenes their faith.

    I suppose we’ll just have to hope that it is sorted in a sensible manner or there will be a lot of hurt people.

  • @Chris
    “..ny influence that same-sex marriage may have now will be a gnat’s bite by comparison. It really will.”

    That may be true for many of us who wonder what the fuss is about, but it obviously isn’t a gnat’s bite for the many deeply religious people who may feel that this is an all out attack on their whole belief system and that their church will be forced into conducting these ceremonies. I don’t think you can just write off their feelings as an irrelevance, a way should be found to introduce this without trampling all over them.

  • “I don’t think you can just write off their feelings as an irrelevance, a way should be found to introduce this without trampling all over them.”

    If it’s going to be introduced at all, I don’t see what more religious people can ask than that religious marriages be completely excluded, in the way that’s being proposed.

    Frankly I think the anti side is so short of arguments that make sense that they are raising the completely bogus one about churches being forced to conduct same-sex marriages. On the contrary, the proposals won’t allow them to do so, and from what Hywel has posted it seems quite clear that the ECHR can’t be used to challenge that provision.

  • “If it’s going to be introduced at all, I don’t see what more religious people can ask than that religious marriages be completely excluded, in the way that’s being proposed”
    Because they have lost trust in politicians, I just don’t think they believe anything they are told, hence I’m saying it should be in concrete with absolute guarantees, not some vague statement that seems like it’s been given a 30 second glance.

    ” from what Hywel has posted it seems quite clear that the ECHR can’t be used to challenge that provision.”
    And I’m saying that it may be possible for it to be challenged due to the original (and existing) meaning of the HRA, hence I’m also saying that churches should be specifically listed as non-public authorities/places to provide re-assurance. I’m also saying that by doing that you would free up other churches to do their thing.

    ” that make sense ”
    Belief doesn’t have to make sense – if sense was a requirement for belief then political parties would be in real trouble.

  • Stuart Mitchell 30th May '12 - 5:55pm

    The real story here is that Lynne Featherstone’s claim just a few weeks ago that “There will be no u-turn on equal marriage – we are committed as a government to legislate by 2015” has been completely blown out of the water by Cameron’s decision.

    Effectively, “the government” is no longer committed to bringing in gay marriage. It cannot happen without the support of Labour.

  • ” from what Hywel has posted it seems quite clear that the ECHR can’t be used to challenge that provision.”

    I didn’t say it couldn’t be used to challenge – but that I could see serious barriers to a challenge succeeding. Very different things 🙂

    Chris_sh disagrees (and his reasons are sensible even if I don’t agree with them!).

    @Chris_sh – what your saying seems to attach a lot of weight to the public status – but none to the proportionality etc aspects and the “special status” of Art 9 through s.13.

    All it would take (IMO) to protect churches is a clear clause stating that nothing in this bill requires a church or minister of religion to conduct a marriage ceremony between two people of the same sex. That would then take Art 9 out of the equation.

    The bill – though not the acts of the Church – could be challenged. But if a bill is found incompatible with the Convention Parliament isn’t obliged to amend it. There would also be the possibility of a challenge in Strasbourg of course. However even then there is a big hurdle to overcome in terms of proportionality.

    It would be a big step to force a religion to carry out a service which was against its teachings. Any complainant will not be arguing that their right to marriage is being infringed – but that their right to be married in a particular was, in a particular building and with a particular ceremony is being infringed. That is a much less fundamental right IMO

    (Just for the record I support gay marriage and believe that it’s up to religions as to which relationships they want to celebrate. I suspect this HRA argument is largely (I except Chris_sh form that) being pushed by opposition forces who see the chance to conflate gay marriage and the HRA into one handy enemy !)

  • @Hywel
    “being pushed by opposition forces who see the chance to conflate gay marriage and the HRA into one handy enemy”

    You’re not the only one who thinks that, although (of course) there are obviously a large number of people worried just on the matter of their faith as well. Whatever is done must be done in a way that can both re-assure the latter and deprive the former of ammunition.

    TBH though, the more I think about it the more I feel that it would be better to try and exclude marriage in church totally from the whole HRA thing as I do think it would clear the ground for the likes of the Methodists and Quakers to “do their thing” (and as a BMD Methodist I’d be quite chuffed that they got there first 😉 )

  • “All it would take (IMO) to protect churches is a clear clause stating that nothing in this bill requires a church or minister of religion to conduct a marriage ceremony between two people of the same sex.”

    I think you must have misunderstood the proposals. Under the proposals such a marriage would remain illegal. Obviously there’s no question of it being “required”.

  • “Belief doesn’t have to make sense”

    Of course. But even the religious opponents of same-sex marriage realise they aren’t going to get very far if they can’t produce something that at least looks like a rational argument.

  • @Chris
    ” if they can’t produce something that at least looks like a rational argument”

    Belief doesn’t have to be rational either – in fact a lot of the time it is totally irrational which is why it’s a belief and not a provable fact.

    Perhaps you don’t hold the various religious teachings of these people in much regard, but if your attitude is one off “doesn’t sound rational to me, therefore we should ignore their beliefs”, then perhaps these people are right to have the worries they do?

    Re your reply to Hywel, I think the basis for his statement is to ensure that churches are given top cover by the politicians so that they can’t be dragged to court under the HRA.

  • Chris_sh

    Please don’t put words into my mouth. I think what I’ve said is clear enough.

    And perhaps it would be better if you let Hywel speak for himself too.

    The fact is that under these proposals a same-sex marriage by a minister of religion would remain illegal under UK law. It would be absurd to insert into an act of parliament a declaration that it didn’t require anyone to carry out an illegal act!

  • @Chris (not SH – boy is this confusing!) – I was thinking of how a hypothetical bill which did allow gay marriages to take place in church could be worded.

    An HRA challenge to a bill which specifically prohibited gay marriage in churches would be even harder (I can only see it being against the act itself rather than the actions of a specific church)

    @Chris_SH – my view is that leaving churches out of it is a pragmatic step to help get the measure into law. My view on it is generally lets not let perfection be the enemy of good. I was brought up as a Quaker (hence my overall views on the subject). But I also don’t like the idea of a religion being compelled to practise in a particular way.

  • “I was thinking of how a hypothetical bill which did allow gay marriages to take place in church could be worded.”

    OK. I must say that, given what you’ve quoted about the explicit provision that the right to marry is subject to national law, I think it seems clear that the ECHR couldn’t be used to force ministers of religion to conduct same-sex marriages – as that would be illegal under the proposed legislation.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st May '12 - 1:28pm

    chris_sh

    Perhaps you don’t hold the various religious teachings of these people in much regard, but if your attitude is one off “doesn’t sound rational to me, therefore we should ignore their beliefs”, then perhaps these people are right to have the worries they do?

    Yes, I think this is the key to my concern. It seems to me the supporters of gay marriage have just assumed what the opposing arguments are, and have dismissed them on that basis without bothering to see what they really are. The argument “we need a special term for an arrangement which is primarily about producing and bringing up children” does seem to me to be rational. Saying that it is rational is not the same as saying one agrees to it – I also quite agree with the line “but you accept the marriage of a man and a woman when they quite obviously are not capable of producing children” to be a reasoned argument against it. However, “you are only saying that because you hate gay people” is NOT a rational or reasoned reply to it. I am sorry that so many people who call themselves liberals have used words about this which in effect do just that.

    Also the argument “you don’t have to marry gay people if you don’t want to” is not a full reply to an argument that gay marriage DOES affect society as a whole, which is what the “we’re concerned about it de-emphasising the child-rearing aspects of it” is saying.

    It seems to me that imposing the whip on this is just to whip up antagonism, since opposition to gay marriage is now quite small. I myself have actually felt intimidated by the atmosphere whipped up by the proponents of gay marriage from even daring to post as I have done now – is that liberal? However I feel, as I have some knowledge of those who do oppose it, my liberalism means I do have to put it this way. Others in this party may judge them all as guilty of the heinous crime of homophobia. Well, maybe, but doesn’t everyone accused of a crime deserve the case for the defence being put?

  • Matthew

    “It seems to me the supporters of gay marriage have just assumed what the opposing arguments are, and have dismissed them on that basis without bothering to see what they really are.”

    It’s all very well saying that, but you yourself said above that “the core of the argument” against same-sex marriage is that marriage should only take place where there is a potential for producing children. You claim that’s a rational argument, but I think that’s very questionable, considering that the people advancing it in reality have no difficulty accepting male-female marriages where there is no possibility of producing children.

    And when people advance arguments that they patently don’t believe, is it really so unreasonable to suspect that their real objection is one that they don’t wish to make public?

  • Richard Swales 31st May '12 - 3:27pm

    I don’t know about the other parties but is restricting marriage to only those people likely to have children (presumably they would approve of an upper age limit for brides too) consistent with taking the Lib Dem whip in the parliament at all? If it really is then “Liberal” just means what it does in the USA – i.e. general vanilla left-wing.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jun '12 - 12:58am

    Chris

    It’s all very well saying that, but you yourself said above that “the core of the argument” against same-sex marriage is that marriage should only take place where there is a potential for producing children. You claim that’s a rational argument, but I think that’s very questionable

    So you think on that basis that people who make that argument should be subject to abuse and told they are liars? Sorry, but I don’t find that very liberal. Your argument seems to be “I am a superior type, therefore what I believe is right, and what others believe is so wrong that they can’t really believe it, therefore I will not give them the decency of accepting them as they are”. I don’t think that’s very liberal. I’m afraid if you look across the world supression of free speech on the grounds “Oh what these peope are saying is very questionable, therefore they have other motives” is very common.

    And when people advance arguments that they patently don’t believe, is it really so unreasonable to suspect that their real objection is one that they don’t wish to make public?

    And here we have another jump – here we are, from yourself not agreeing with the arguments to outright accusation of those making them to be liars.

    I believe a liberal is someone who respects the rights of someone else to have different opinions to his own. I have become increasingly concerned over the way this gay marriage thing is being pushed at the illiberal way it is being done, at the readiness to accuse those who are against it of having malevolent hidden aims. Isn’t this very much like the sort of nastiness that gay people often experience?

    I don’t want to get sucked into making a detailed case against gay marriage, into countering the counter-arguments and so on. As a liberal I find it all too easy to put other people’s cases and often find myself doing so when I feel they need to be heard even when I don’t agree with them – and get myself intoa great deal of trouble for doing so, because few people can distinguish between “This the case for X” and “This is what I believe about X”. Many years ago I used to contribute to the soc.culture.irish usenet group when the main traffic on it came from Americans of the naive “I have an Irish ancestor, therefore I support the IRA freedom fighters” types. I remember comments being made about me such as “Who needs Paisley when we’ve got Huntbach?”. Many people contributing genuninely believed I was some sort of British Imperialist Protestant type because I put the counter-argument to theirs. In fact I am a Catholic who if I were in Northern Ireland would support Irish unity.

    From my religious background I am aware of the arguments being put by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales on gay marriage, I even know some of those involved in it. Please note, if it’s the way you’re thinking, “Gay marriage is wrong because the Bible says so” is a Protestant argument. The argument put by the Catholic Bishops is not that, I have tried to summarise it very briefly above. I believe it to be rational, which is not the same as agreeing to it. I believe those putting it are sincere in what they are saying, they really do believe those lines, thus I find it deeply offensive when you wrote what you did in my second quote from you above.

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