David Burrowes: There must be safeguards for religious freedom in the Same Sex Marriage Bill. And a referendum.
David Burrowes is Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate. Follow David on Twitter.
For many colleagues, the news that the issue of gay marriage is coming back to the Commons next week is like those Jaws film trailers. Just when you thought it was safe to return to a new Parliamentary session, focussing on the key issues facing the country, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill returns to infest MPs.
Maria Miller would have to be cast as the town mayor trying to reassure everyone that there is no danger in the Parliamentary sea. The Secretary of State for Equalities has told MPs that she "would never introduce a Bill that encroaches or threatens religious freedoms". The problem is that a majority of Conservative MPs were not convinced by her assurances when they voted against the Bill. Many more MPs from all parties were also not convinced, but were hoping that the Committee stage would at least provide greater protection for freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
Well, we will next week be out of the 'court' and into the less controlled environment of MPs having a free vote on a raft of amendments. I say "free vote" - but it is not clear whether Labour will be giving a free vote. A Shadow Minister has already been forced to take his name off the cross-party backed amendments. The latest message from Labour's Whips Office to their MPs is that all votes next week have a three line whip. At least Conservatives recognise that when your dealing with an issue of conscience. it makes sense to allow MPs to have the freedom to exercise their conscience. In fact, all the amendments I have tabled with colleagues seek to ensure our constituents have the same freedom of conscience which we will have for the votes next week.
First, we are seeking greater protection for schools with a religious character. Most people accept that religious schools should be free to continue to teach their own beliefs about the nature of marriage, regardless of this Bill. However, nothing in the Bill explicitly protects that freedom. The Education Act 1996 requires the Secretary of State to issue sex education guidance so that pupils "learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life". Our amendment ensures that designated religious schools are not required by guidance to promote views of marriage that are contrary to their religious beliefs, whilst accepting that they will teach the existence of the new legal definition of marriage.
Second, we recognise that protecting the right of conscience is a long-standing British tradition. For example, whilst the law requires schools to provide religious education, it also protects atheist teachers from being compelled to teach it. GPs also have the right to conscientiously object to performing an abortion. Our amendment makes similar provision for marriage registrars, preventing them being compelled to solemnise same-sex marriages against their consciences. However, if there are not enough registrars in the area to meet demand, the conscience clause does not apply.
Holland was the first country to introduce same-sex marriage, and the Dutch courts have ruled that registrars should not be compelled to solemnise same-sex marriages against their consciences if they were employed as registrars before the new law was introduced. So another of our amendments simply replicates this transitional right of conscientious objection in England and Wales.
I know from my own experience that people who uphold a traditional view of marriage are often accused of being bigoted and discriminatory. MPs probably have wide enough shoulders to withstand such unfair criticism, but allegations against employees and employers can be intimidating and may result in action being taken that is disproportionate. The case of Adrian Smith, a housing manager is but one example. He was demoted for "gross misconduct" after a colleague complained when he described same-sex marriage in church as "an equality too far". So one of our amendments makes clear that merely discussing or criticising same sex marriage is not, on its own, a form of discrimination for the purpose of equality law. Another amendment ensures that the "public sector equality duty" and Equality Act is not misused to disadvantage those with a traditional view of marriage.
The Government has sought to stop religious denominations being forced to conduct same-sex weddings, but many fear the use of litigation against those who refuse. In particular, a denominational decision not to 'opt in' to same-sex weddings could be the subject of protracted legal action, either by factions within the denomination, or even by outside groups. One of our amendmenrs seeks to prevent this.
Whilst the Bill contains four so-called 'locks' to guard churches against being forced to solemnise same-sex marriages, many question the adequacy of these locks. The Bill says no-one may be "compelled" to provide same-sex weddings but does not define "compelled". Case law suggests the definition is narrow and our amendment simply widens it to include the use of legal proceedings against the church, and less favourable treatment by a public authority.
Finally, many believe this Bill lacks democratic legitimacy through not being in any party's main manifesto at the last election. The redefinition of marriage is a major social change and highly divisive. Considered consultation, scrutiny, national debate, and building a case and consent for such a change have been absent. The division amongst Conservative MPs is reflected in the country. Opinion polls are also divided depending as ever on the question that is asked. But when the public are told that civil partnerships already give legal rights equivalent to married couples, up to 70% oppose gay marriage. So our amendment provides the opportunity for a mandate by making commencement of the Bill dependent on approval by a majority of voters in a national referendum. The provisions imitate those used in the AV referendum.
These amendments, aside from the referendum, will not stop the Bill becoming law. (We will probably have to rely on the wisdom of the Lords to do that). They are reasonable attempts to put flesh on the bones of the Government's desire to protect religious liberty and individual consciences. They are attracting support from beyond the 175 MPs who opposed a Second Reading of the Bill. I hope the Government next week will respond positively to the depth of concern which bubbled to the surface at the local elections last week and have filled our inboxes over the last year. And it will at least ease our return to the key issues like the economy, welfare, education and immigration which unite Conservatives and divide us from the real danger lurking - a future Labour Government.