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Britain's Conservatives to propose legalizing same-sex marriage

December 11, 2012|By Henry Chu
  • British Culture Secretary Maria Miller, shown departing Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting in London on Tuesday, unveiled the Conservative government proposal for allowing same-sex marriages.
British Culture Secretary Maria Miller, shown departing Downing Street… (Andy Rain / European Pressphoto…)

LONDON – Championing a cause eschewed by fellow conservatives elsewhere, the British government said Tuesday it will sponsor a bill to allow same-sex couples to marry, including in churches, synagogues and mosques that look favorably on such unions.

Religious organizations against the idea would be legally protected from having to wed gays and lesbians, and the Church of England, as the nation’s established church, would specifically be barred. But civil marriage would be available to all couples under the new proposal.

“For some, this is contentious, a radical reform or, indeed, a reform too far,” said Maria Miller, the Conservative Party government minister who unveiled the plan in Parliament. “But the historical facts show that, over the generations, marriage has had a long history of evolution. ... For me, extending marriage to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, this vital institution.”

The bill is likely to be introduced next month and voted on sometime later in the new year. Although church groups and some lawmakers have spoken out vehemently against opening up marriage to same-sex couples, polls show that a majority of Britons support the idea, and the legislation is almost certain to pass.

If so, Britain would become the latest European country to give gay and lesbian residents the right to get hitched. Marriage for same-sex couples is already possible in the Netherlands and Denmark, as well as in the predominantly Roman Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal. Lawmakers in France are expected to approve a bill authorizing gay marriage in the coming months.

The proposal in Britain is unusual because the sponsoring government lies on the right of the political spectrum. Supporters of marriage equality were delighted last year when Prime Minister David Cameron declared at a party conference: “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

That stance, however, is far from universal within his party. On this issue, the most vociferous dissent in Parliament is not coming from the opposition Labor Party or the junior governing party, the Liberal Democrats, both of which are expected to back the bill overwhelmingly, but from Cameron’s own Conservative backbenchers.

“These proposals are a constitutional outrage and disgrace,” thundered one Tory member of Parliament, Stewart Jackson. “There is no electoral mandate for these policies.”

Other Conservatives accused Cameron and Miller of arrogance, religious intolerance and something close to sacrilege in pressing ahead with marriage equality for same-sex couples.

As many as 100 Tory lawmakers in the 650-seat House of  Commons, including members of Cameron’s own Cabinet, could vote against the measure. But there are also senior party figures in Cameron’s corner, including former Prime Minister John Major.

To try to assuage the fears of some religious organizations, Miller said the bill would contain a “quadruple lock” of safeguards to guarantee that no religious groups would be compelled to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies against their will.

For example, only a religious institution’s overall governing body would be able to decide whether the organization will “opt in” on marrying gay couples. If it decides not to, individual ministers within that group could not take it upon themselves to perform such ceremonies.

More controversially, the bill will explicitly forbid same-sex marriages in the Church of England because of its special status as the established church. Even if its leaders decide in the future to change canon law to allow same-sex marriage, Parliament will have to ratify the move.

“We need to be fair to same-sex couples. The state should not be banning them from such a great institution” as marriage, Miller told the House of Commons. “Equally we need to be fair to people of faith.”

Religious groups in favor of conducting same-sex weddings include the Quakers and some liberal Jewish synagogues.

Currently, gay and lesbian couples can enter into “civil partnerships” in Britain that carry virtually all the same rights as marriage. About 50,000 partnerships have been registered since 2005.

Under the new proposal, a couple in such an arrangement would have the opportunity to swap their civil partnership for marriage. Civil partnerships would continue to be offered but for same-sex couples only; the government has no plans to make those available for opposite-sex couples because the demand is not there, Miller said.

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