The Equal Marriage Debate


“The Jesus I know was born a refugee, illegitimate, with a death warrant on his name, and in a barn among animals. He would stand up for minorities. That is why it is right for those of religious conviction to vote for this Bill.” David Lammy


“In the garden of Eden, it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” David Simpson

Before I go into the good, the bad and the ugly from the Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, there are a number of things I want to have a look at in terms of background.

Background issues

What’s the issue?

The first – as with any piece of legislation – is this: “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” The problem as I see it is the legal bar on two people who, because of their gender and sexual orientation are prevented from getting married. In this case, the only possible solution is a legal one. It’s not one that you can pull other levers to solve – whether a publicity campaign, throwing money at it etc. The route the Coalition has chosen is to table the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – which, as the summary says is “A Bill to make provision for the marriage of same sex couples in England and Wales.”

Could an alternative piece of legislation been put forward?

Absolutely. One that could have taken ‘marriage’ outside of the civil legal framework and replaced it with civil legal partnerships/civil unions as being recognised in law for all, and marriages being separate to that framework and left in the hands of the people and organisations that want to go through whatever religious or spiritual or otherwise ceremony they desire. That way, all the debate around the definition of marriage would simply not apply.

But there is a problem with this approach

Once you start looking at this, eyes then turn towards the Established Church – the Church of England in England. The law is different for Scotland because competency for marriage law there resides with the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, the Scottish Executive announced in 2012 that it would be tabling legislation to allow same sex marriages. With the Church of England, there are a number of powers and duties it has regarding marriage. Part of it stems from the 1753 Marriage Act that (until 1836 & the creation of civil marriages) required all marriage ceremonies [to] be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England to be legally binding“. The inertia stemming from what’s left of that piece of legislation is one of the reasons why the Church of England has been at the centre of the debate today. Thus taking on the case of equal marriage involves taking on the structure and the history of the Church of England too.

“Hang on a minute – if I’m not a member of the Church of England, why should it be any of their business on who I get married to?”

Precisely. ‘I’m not in their club so why should I be bound by their rules?’ point of view. Two consenting adults, why would the state want to expend limited resources on trying to ban certain groups of adults by law from marrying? But again, the issue is the current structure which currently makes it the Church’s business given their existing powers and duties in law – because it is the established church. Therefore, in order to get to the place of marriage having nothing to do with religious institutions where consenting couples do not want it, those legal structures need to be taken down. But where such legal structures reduce the power (and possibly the finances) of any institution, it’s not surprising that said institutions will instinctively resist. Which is what we are seeing. And not just from the Church of England. The Catholic Church has also been at it too.

“This sounds like a case for taking on those with the viewpoint of antidisestablishmentarianism”

That must be a first – using what playground folklore says is the longest word in the English dictionary in its proper context rather than ‘ooh! It’s a long word! Haven’t a clue what it means though!’ setting. Basically, should we disestablish the Church of England? The National Secular Society says yes. (The disestablishmentarianists, if you like. Their opponents you could say are the antidisestablishmentarianists). The result of doing so automatically assumes removing the bishops from the House of Lords – who get to table and vote on legislation.

“Hang on – why should their religion get to sit in the Lords and impact on the laws of the land?”

Why should any religion? We’ve not even mentioned the existing hereditary peers. That aside, the instinct for any organisation to lose such a privilege would be to resist it – especially one that had enjoyed it for hundreds of years. The thing is, once you start dealing with that, you get onto issues of the monarch as head of the Church of England, and Lords reform. And then it’s all a big mess.

“All we want is the right to get married – we had no idea that this meant reform of the Lords, smashing the hereditary principle, undermining the monarchy and whether we should have an elected head of state!”

That’s why possibly one of the biggest misjudgements of the political establishment on constitutional reform was not setting out a vision of where we wanted to get to, let alone how to get there. A strong case for constitutional reform encompassing all of those things plus more could have been made and argued for. But it seems no one in high party politics was up for that. (Or if they were, it was ‘misundercommunicatified’).

“Listen Pooffles, all that stuff sounds like incredibly complicated hard work – can’t we put it on the ‘too difficult to deal with now’ pile? After all, you do have civil partnerships, so what’s the problem?”

The problem is that a group of people in our society are being discriminated against in law – thus breaching the principle that we are all equal before the law. 

That is my issue. Just because something is complicated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deal with it. Climate change is complicated. We’re still dealing with it (albeit very badly). My issue relates to something that sounds incredibly complicated: Intersectionality.

“Inter…what was that again?”

Intersectionality – something that I had not heard of before until Puffles’ feminist followers started tweeting about it. One of them, Sarah McAlpine introduces it here. There’s also further reading from Zoe Stavri here, and via Dana Bubulj here. I won’t go into the detail, but having faced discrimination myself over the years on grounds of ethnicity, I know what it’s like to have sand kicked in my face over something that I have zero control over. It’s not fun. Therefore if someone else can be discriminated against due to something out of their control, so can I be. Therefore I have an issue with it.

The Second Reading of the Bill 

“That’s more like it Puffles – get stuck into the homophobes!”

That would be too easy. In any case, others have already made a far better go of it than me. I’m more interested in why the opponents of equal marriage feel the way they do, and how we can deal with that. Once you’ve torn your opponents to shreds, then what? (Especially if they’ve said ‘I hear what you’re saying, I just disagree’ – or start being abusive. They are still there at the end of the day).

I guess for me, the main themes from the opponents of equal marriage are:

  • My religion says…
  • I accept the way society is going, but this is too much too soon
  • This is far too complicated an issue which this bill doesn’t address
  • Squeamishness

My religion says…

On the ‘My religion says…’ theme, there is an issue of disposition that is separate to the issue of detail. It’s one I’ve come to accept within my family and long-time family friends. As far as religion is concerned, they keep things simple and trust in the judgements of others within their religious institutions to have dealt with the details – that the latter have got things right. In society, we do this all of the time. Police officers have to rely on Parliament drafting laws to a decent enough standard for police officers to implement. How often have I seen activists trying to debate some of the merits of a particular piece of law (on whether Parliament was right in principle to pass it or not) with police who respond with ‘Parliament have passed it, my job is to uphold it’. 

The problem here is that historically, large religious institutions don’t like being held accountable to anyone. In an era of social media, large organisations have struggled to deal with growing numbers of people who not just want to ask awkward questions, but also want answers and to be able to cross-examine their representatives. When was the last time you saw a senior cleric subjected to hostile, detailed and intelligent cross-examination in a public space?

This then reminds me of a quotation from Tony Benn in the House of Commons at the end of his parliamentary career.

        • “what power do you have;
        • where did you get it;
        • in whose interests do you exercise it;
        • to whom are you accountable; and,
        • how can we get rid of you?”

(From 1998 on European Parliamentary Elections). The same questions apply to any organisation with power or influence.

Because religious institutions have held onto their definition of marriage for centuries, the culture change for some will take longer than others. Some may never change. But society has – significantly. Some of the MPs that are on Twitter today and that voted for equal marriage on 5 February 2012 were also in the Parliament in 1987 that – despite their best efforts, passed Section 28 that institutionalised homophobia. The transcript of the debate is here. That piece of legislation was very real for me. At during my final year in secondary school there was a homophobic firestorm around allegations of the sexuality of one person. Watching this person being bullied was a watershed because instinctively something inside me said: That’s not right.

The problem the Coalition parties – and Labour – have with religious institutions is that they are inconsistent in how they deal with them. On one side they are defying them over equal rights, while on the other hand through academies they are handing more schools over to them. On one hand they are trying to talk about how important sex education is while with the other, are allowing faith schools to have an incredibly narrow syllabus that is out of sync with wider society. If you are a child who is uncomfortable talking about sex with your parents, and are at a school that says sex outside marriage is a sin, how does that sit with trying to educate children to deal with the hyper-sexualised society we live in?

Society is changing…but too quickly

It’s a repeated message I receive when delivering social media training sessions. This for me goes beyond equal marriage because society is changing across a whole host of different areas. How can we help people and communities cope with, and respond to those changes? There’s no magic answer to this one. What those answers will be are likely to stem from a huge amount of listening and engagement…something political parties (judging by falling membership numbers) have not been too good at in recent times.

Complicated stuff

As one MP put it: “If not now, when?” Peter Bone MP said in 2017, tied into a referendum on Europe. But referendums let politicians off the hook. Referendums are very blunt policy instruments indeed – especially in our political system where we don’t have a culture of national referendums. The problems of society are often far too complex for a simple yes/no response.


Yep – it exists. Society struggles enough as it is talking about heterosexual sex. Remember that until very recently, young people had no access to educational materials that showed photographs of genitals. It was all drawings and illustrations. The message this sent was that sex and nudity were equated with pornography. There was no culture of openness and people being at ease with sex, let alone sexual orientation. It was only when I went to live in Brighton for my university years did I find an environment much more at ease with both.

On sex education, there’s something that for me chimes with wider issues on adult education. The advances in learning, and the materials and methods now available have changed beyond all comparison to what was in most classrooms say 20 years ago. So, not just on sex but on a whole series of things, is there something about the re-education of society that needs to take place?

Quotations from the debate

Okay, let’s pick a few then:

Those in favour of equal marriage

“Some say that the Bill redefines marriage, but marriage is an institution with a long history of adaptation and change. In the 19th century, Catholics, Baptists, atheists and many others were allowed to marry only if they did so in an Anglican Church, and in the 20th century, changes were made to recognise married men and married women as equal before law. Suggestions that the Bill changes something that has remained unchanged for centuries simply do not recognise the road that marriage has travelled as an institution.” Maria Miller introducing the Bill

“Our sexuality is fundamental to who we are. Surely the crux of the debate is the question of whether we accord equal rights, respect and esteem to people regardless of their sexuality.” Dr Sarah Wollaston

“As an atheist, I enjoyed the right to get married outside the Church. Surely those who do believe [but are in same sex partnerships] have a right to get married within their Church?”Angela Smith

“Today is a significant day for Britain as an equal nation. Today is about equality, but it is also about one of the fundamental principles that I think each of the political parties represented in this House recognises, namely that, basically, we should live and let live: we should let people get on with their own lives and give people who are gay the same basic rights that the rest of us enjoy”Toby Perkins

“[Some opponents of equal marriage who have written to me] seem to argue that, because gay marriage will be an option, some young people will suddenly decide that they are not straight anymore, but gay” Toby Perkins

“I welcome this historic Bill, which I think will end a form of discrimination and, perhaps more crucially, send a signal that this House values everybody equally across our country. That signal will deeply affect people like me in the same way as I was affected 20 years ago, when I saw this House vote to equalise the age of consent” Stephen Gilbert

“Are the marriages of millions of straight people about to be threatened because a few thousand gay people are permitted to join? What will they say? “Darling, our marriage is over: Sir Elton John has just got engaged to David Furnish”?” Nick Herbert

“If marriage had not been redefined in 1836, there would be no civil marriages. If it had not been redefined in 1949, under-16-year-olds would still be able to get married. If it had not been redefined in 1969, we would not have today’s divorce laws. All those changes were opposed.” Nick Herbert

“I feel a certain distress about how the debate has been managed over the past six months and the pressure that has been put on so many of my colleagues by pressure groups and Churches who should have known better than to deploy such tactics… …As a result of the debate over the past six months, we may have gone two steps forward, but I fear we have also gone one step back. The modernisation of the Conservative party is not yet complete.” Margot James

“Has [Margot James], like me, been particularly angered and frustrated by the tactics of the campaign director of Coalition for Marriage, who has sent out e-mails urging people to write to their MPs saying:

“You will be remembered if you vote for this Bill. You will be held to account for it. We will tell your friends and family and we will not vote for you.”?

This is a free vote. Members should be voting with their conscience, as a free vote requires, not on the basis of threats to electoral prospects.” Madeleine Moon

Does [Margot James] agree that many European countries that are members of the Council of Europe have introduced same-sex marriage while at the same time protecting religious freedom, and that it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to do the same in our country? Emma Reynolds

“[Equal Marriage] was not an election commitment, so I ask the Minister, the Government and Parliament to proceed slowly and carefully and to seek maximum consensus. Heavy programming and tight timetables will be the enemy of good legislation, and I hope that the Government will be sensitive to that” Simon Hughes

““Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” Much of what we hear from the opponents of same-sex marriage is opinion masquerading as fact, so that they can then take the next logical step of insisting that their position should be imposed on everyone else.” Sandra Osborne

Many European countries that are members of the Council of Europe have already introduced same-sex marriage, some—in the case of the Netherlands—as early as 2001. It has also been introduced more recently in Denmark, Sweden and elsewhere. Those countries have managed to introduce same-sex marriage while at the same time protecting religious freedom. As has been stated, no successful case has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights” Emma Reynolds

“I support the Bill on Second Reading because I care for the legislative principle. However, as a legislator, I must also observe the principle of legislative care. The time we have been given to discuss the Bill on Second Reading means we have to soundbite our way through the debate—we have four minutes each to speak, which is ridiculous. I do not know how we can discharge our responsibility to legislative care in that way.” Mark Durkan

As long as our statute book suggests that love between two men or two women is unworthy of recognition through marriage, we allow the rot of homophobia to fester and we entrench a society where 20,000 homophobic crimes take place each year and where 800,000 people have witnessed homophobic bullying at work in the past five years. David Lammy

“There is a Bill before the other House to pardon Alan Turing. We probably would not be here debating in freedom today without his genius at Bletchley park, yet this remarkable individual—the father of modern computing—was driven to suicide as a result of his shameful chemical castration enforced by the state as an alternative to prison. I hope that the Bill in the other place is successful.” Dr Sarah Wollaston

“My understanding of marriage as somebody with no faith is no less valid than that of Members who speak passionately from their religious perspective…Homosexuality is not forbidden love, and it is time that this House recognised that, and recognised that people cannot be a little bit equal” Dr Sarah Wollaston

“The 1836 [Marriage] Act, in seeking to protect a number of minorities, was a very forward-looking piece of legislation. The arguments marshalled against it were not dissimilar to those that we are hearing today… I believe that, 177 years later, we should now seek to protect the love, the freedoms and the liberties of another minority that has been oppressed and forgotten for so long.” Ben Gummer

“Marriage is not just a religious matter—it is a social institution, too, and precisely because it is a social institution the meaning of marriage changes over time as society’s values change.” Kate Green

” I was a primary teacher when section 28 came into force. The class I taught in Peckham had children whose parents were gay, and I was debarred by my head teacher and the law from talking about their families as families. Passing the Bill will bring that era to an end. We should be proud of ourselves if we pass this Bill.” Fiona McTaggart

Those against equal marriage

“When they were introduced in Spain, 208,000 people were married in mixed-sex marriages, whereas last year 161,000 people were married in mixed-sex marriages, so the numbers are declining, not increasing.” IPaisley Jr

“It is even more complicated in relation to the Church of England because as well as the common law duty, its canon law remains part of the law of the land and it also has its own devolved legislature which, with Parliament’s agreement, can amend Church legislation and Westminster legislation.” Sir Tony Baldry representing Church Commissioners in the Commons.

“If marriage were simply about love and commitment, we would first have to define love as being sexual love, because otherwise non-sexual relationships that are based on love and commitment would also have to be treated as marriage on the basis of the definition of equality…Marriage is the union of a man and a woman that is open to the creation and care of children—not in all cases, but fundamentally that is its intrinsic value” Robert Flello

“Article 16 of the universal declaration of human rights describes the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” and defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. It states that the family is “entitled to protection by society and the State.” Jim Dobbin [Article 16 is here – does it define it as Dobbin says?]

“It is not possible to redefine marriage. Marriage is the union between a man and a woman. It has been that historically and it remains so. It is Alice in Wonderland territory—Orwellian almost—for any Government of any political persuasion to try to rewrite the lexicon. It will not do.” Sir Roger Gale

“Let us get away from the ridiculous mentality that too often pervades arguments on sensitive issues: that if someone is for some reason not in favour of a specific issue, they are against the whole cause—that if someone is not in favour of gay marriage, they must be homophobic or against equality. What nonsense! I feel immensely special and proud to be British, but that does not make me racist or guilty of regarding citizens of other races as inferior.” Tim Loughton

“Every marriage has procreating potential in that marriage brings together biologically the two elements needed to generate a child. The very reason that marriage is underpinned with laws and customs is that children often result from it. They need protecting from the tendency of adults to want to break their ties and cast off their responsibilities.” Edward Leigh

“In this case, I listened to the 1,700 of my constituents who have contacted me to tell me clearly that they are opposed to any change and to the redefinition of marriage.” Jim Shannon

“Marriage is clearly both a foundational and a progressive institution; it is both traditional and radical. It secures well-being and manifest advantage for children born under its auspices, and stability for men and for women. However, traditional marriage is under threat, and has been for many years. The steady erosion of marriage over the last few decades is a grave social and economic ill. Why, then, does the state want to undermine it even further?” Craig Whittaker

“In June 1998, I voted in the House in favour of an equal age of consent. Only 13 other Conservative Members did so at the time. In 2003, I supported the introduction of civil partnerships, although I wanted the proposals to be wider and to include other cohabiting couples. Both those changes righted an injustice. This measure does not.”  Graham Brady

“I am sad that my party has introduced the Bill without any democratic mandate. I shall deal specifically with the democratic deficit. That is what Parliament should be concerned about tonight.” Peter Bone

“Finally, it is a sad day when a Conservative Prime Minister uses, in effect, the Opposition and our colleagues on the Front Benches to push this through. It is a sad day for democracy, and a sad day for our party.” Richard Drax

“There are many arranged marriages and many marriages are loveless, but those people are still in law and by law married. Marriage is not defined by love itself. The vow that we take when we get married is there to sustain marriage, even after love wanes, if it wanes at all” IPaiselyJr

“I never imagined that I would be put in a position where I have, by virtue of standing up for marriage, been characterised variously as a “homophobic bigot”, a “religious nutter”, a product of the dark ages, or, as I see in this weekend’s press, on the brink of making “a tragic mistake” that I will have many years to regret.” John Glen

“First, I believe it is simply wrong in principle…Secondly neither the Prime Minister nor any other party leader has a mandate, because this was not in any party’s manifesto…Thirdly, if there is no mandate, where is the demand for this change?…Fourthly, there is already provision for civil partnerships…Fifthly, what about the consequences?” Sir Gerald Howarth

One thought on “The Equal Marriage Debate

  1. “If marriage had not been redefined in 1836, there would be no civil marriages.”
    I wasn’t aware that civil marriage has only existed for two centuries. Shame that this happened. I hope we get to detach marriage from the law again at some point in the future, though I suspect I’m in an exceptionally small minority.

    “Every marriage has procreating potential”
    Really? Even the ones where one half of the couple is infertile?

    The Lammy quote at the top is also poor (as are many others listed). I’m not convinced Jesus would have supported gay marriage (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have), and even if he would have, how would Lammy know? And, of course, he should mean “followers of Jesus” rather than “people of religious convinction”, because – despite what he might think – there are in fact more religions than just Christianity.
    Anyhow, I look forward to being able to marry the man I love, not because I actually will get married (which is highly unlikely), but because it marks the end of our battle against discrimination. As far as I know, there are no other areas of law in the UK where people are treated differently due to sexuality.

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