Miller’s marriage mess-up reveals ministers’ ignorance and contempt

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would be tempted to believe that the government’s current proposals for same-sex marriage have been designed with the intention of scuppering the whole idea. But this government seems far too disorganised for a decent conspiracy.

In the space of less than 24 hours, ministers have revealed the UK government to be clueless about religion, contemptuous of civil rights and bizarrely ignorant about the history, culture and politics of Wales.

To recap: the government conducted a consultation on same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Cameron’s ministers had been expected to propose only civil ceremonies for same-sex marriage, a sham equality that would have maintained discrimination against religious same-sex couples. Last week, Cameron said he had changed his mind. He backed the right of faith groups to hold religious same-sex weddings if they choose to do so. This followed years of hard work by Unitarians, Quakers, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and other pro-equality groups.

But after the two steps forward came one step back. “Gay marriage to be illegal in Church of England” roared yesterday’s headlines. The headline was basically true, but the situation is more complicated – and far worse – than it suggests.

Appeasing prejudice

Ever since marriage equality was proposed, its opponents have argued that churches will be forced to host same-sex weddings against their will. This claim has no basis in reality. These scaremongers are unable to name a single organisation that wants to make it compulsory to host same-sex marriage ceremonies. Most churches have no legal obligation to marry anyone at all. Of all the countries that have legalised same-sex marriages, none has witnessed the courts forcing them onto churches. A religious marriage is an act of worship and nobody should be forced to participate in an act of worship in which they do not believe. This is a scare story spread by a combination of the ignorant, the prejudiced and the deceitful.

Miller suggests a “quadruple lock” to prevent same-sex marriages being forced on unwilling churches. Two of these concern the right of churches not to host marriages they don’t believe in. The other two reveal a worrying ignorance about British churches.

One states that a faith group can carry out same-sex marriages only if its governing body has applied for permission. This is problematic for denominations such as the United Reformed Church, who may resolve to leave the decision to each congregation. In the Baptist Union, there are calls for individual churches and ministers to be allowed to celebrate same-sex weddings if they choose. A positive response to such calls is less likely if the Baptist Union as a whole has to apply to the government for permission, thus appearing to be endorsing same-sex marriage.

Insulting Wales

The worst provision concerns the Church of England and the (Anglican) Church in Wales. Miller proposes that it should be illegal for them to host same-sex weddings, although the leaders of both have already said that they do not wish to do so.

The London-based media noticed the English provision first, but it is the inclusion of the Church in Wales that is more shocking. The Church of England is the established church and its rules are governed by law. Yesterday, Maria Miller spoke of the Church in Wales as an established church. She is 92 years too late. There has been no established church in Wales since 1920.

It says a great deal that Miller and her civil servants appear to be so ignorant about an important political, cultural and religious difference between the two countries to whom their law will apply. I applaud the Church in Wales for responding to the news by saying that they don’t want to be treated differently to other churches.

When it comes to the Church of England, it can be argued that the church’s laws are the state’s laws. Also, the Church of England is the only church that has a legal obligation to marry certain people. This is a consequence of the absurdity of establishment. Many Anglican leaders seem to want the benefits of establishment without the obligations. We will see them enjoying those benefits when certain bishops rise from their unelected seats in the House of Lords to argue that other churches should be denied the same freedom that they demand for themselves – the freedom to choose who to marry.

Freeing ourselves

We do not need “quadruple locks”, designed to appease scaremongers and homophobes who will never be satisfied with any provision that extends gay and bisexual people’s rights. We do not need special provisions to privilege certain religious groups over others. We need a law that states that marriage is open to all regardless of gender and that no faith group (established or otherwise) is obliged to perform a wedding in which they do not believe.

We could also do with an investigation into the unfairness of marriage law more widely, including the fact that some faith groups have far more rights than others to solemnise marriages.

We stand at a crucial juncture in the struggle for gay and bisexual people’s civil rights in the UK. We have come so far – it’s only 45 years since sexual relations between men were legalised on the British mainland. But a long journey is no reason to give up while inequality still remains. Complacency would be grossly immoral when homophobic violence is rife and gay and bisexual teenagers are far more likely to kill themselves than their straight counterparts. Unequal treatment in law sends out the message that unequal treatment in society is morally acceptable.

Miller’s bill risks being laughed through the Commons and bogged down in the Lords. Certain Tory politicians and right-wing lobby groups are determined to fight it all the way. Cameron and colleagues, offering the bill as a sop to the LibDems, may have little incentive to fight for it. The defeat of marriage equality remains a very real possibility.

I do not want future history books to write that civil rights campaigners failed to act at a crucial moment, that we complacently thought that victory was in the bag, that pro-equality Christians were too concerned with passive unity to stand up for active justice. The future of marriage equality is not up to ignorant ministers, duplicitous Tories or celebrity “role models”. It is up to you and me.

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11 responses to “Miller’s marriage mess-up reveals ministers’ ignorance and contempt

  1. I am sorry, but you are mistaken. There are those who want to make support of same-sex marriage compulsory. Several businesses and religious organizations in the U.S. have been sued for discrimination because they did not wish to be involved with a same-sex wedding.

    • Thanks for your comment. There’s no need to be sorry. However, I’m talking about England and Wales, to which this law will apply, not the US. Do you know of any group in England and Wales who want to force churches to host same-sex marriage ceremonies that they don’t believe in? I have been asking this question for a long time to people who claim that this will happen. None of them have been able to name any organisation that is calling for it.

      Also, there is a big difference between businesses and religious organisations. Businesses provide goods and services and shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against gay and bisexual people. However, no-one should be obliged to participate in an act of worship (such as a religious marriage) in which they do not believe. Please can you tell me which religious organisations in the US have been sued over this?

      Many thanks,

      Symon

      • So, you are saying that businesses should not be allowed to discriminate against people on the basis of those people’s behavior? Where does that stop?

  2. The only bit you’ve missed is the conspiracy to hurt to the Church for not buying into Big Society and for its (albeit weak) statements against penalising the poor. I wonder if the Tory’s mate Lord Carey had anything to do with this very specific attack.
    Whilst its more than likely that the Tory’s are just being negligent with reality, its also possible that they have settled on a means by which to get the church wrapped in its own knots. For instance, could there be a situation where a whole church opts in, then one of its local congregations is punished for opting out?

  3. Oh, I missed something, which is that, if this gets delayed, there’s a strong risk it will disappear under the oncoming train of the next General Election, especially if some other ‘crisis’ means it just doesn’t get discussed very quickly.

  4. I think this article demonstrates a naivety of the legal situation in this country. Let’s pick up on some of them:

    “Ever since marriage equality was proposed, its opponents have argued that churches will be forced to host same-sex weddings against their will. This claim has no basis in reality. These scaremongers are unable to name a single organisation that wants to make it compulsory to host same-sex marriage ceremonies. Most churches have no legal obligation to marry anyone at all. Of all the countries that have legalised same-sex marriages, none has witnessed the courts forcing them onto churches. A religious marriage is an act of worship and nobody should be forced to participate in an act of worship in which they do not believe. This is a scare story spread by a combination of the ignorant, the prejudiced and the deceitful.”

    No “groups” I grant you that, but I believe in a recent poll 21% agreed that Churches should be forced to marry gay people. I have sat in one of your discussion groups where someone brought this up. Denmark, the first country to accept gay civill unions, only this year forced it state church to marry gays. A religious marriage is not simply an act of worship if it is also recognised by the state which is why there is a problem.

    “One states that a faith group can carry out same-sex marriages only if its governing body has applied for permission. This is problematic for denominations such as the United Reformed Church, who may resolve to leave the decision to each congregation. In the Baptist Union, there are calls for individual churches and ministers to be allowed to celebrate same-sex weddings if they choose. A positive response to such calls is less likely if the Baptist Union as a whole has to apply to the government for permission, thus appearing to be endorsing same-sex marriage.”

    There is a legal issue here because if one church in a denomination marries gays,and another doesn’t, there would be grounds in the Equality Act to sue the second church for discrimination. This is not like divorcees in the Church of England where it is up to the conscience of the vicar; divorcees, unlike gays, are not explicitly protected by the Equality Act.

    “We need a law that states that marriage is open to all regardless of gender and that no faith group (established or otherwise) is obliged to perform a wedding in which they do not believe.”

    It is nowhere near that simple. You simply don’t understand the complex interplay of the Equality Act and the ECHR etc. Have a look a the legal advice produced for the coalition for marriage here:

    http://c4m.org.uk/downloads/legalopinionsummary.pdf

    “The London-based media noticed the English provision first, but it is the inclusion of the Church in Wales that is more shocking. The Church of England is the established church and its rules are governed by law. Yesterday, Maria Miller spoke of the Church in Wales as an established church. She is 92 years too late. There has been no established church in Wales since 1920.”

    The Church of Wales asked to be treated the same as the Church of England, so this is their own fault. If the C of E decides to accept gay marriage, they can do so and then parliament will have to present some primary legislation to allow it. Given that they currently do not accept gay marriage, this is a required legal protection because of their unique position as the established church.

    You really do need to stop implying everyone who is against gay marriage is either ignorant, prejudiced or deceitful. There are some serious issues that need to be addressed that are being steamrolled through by a politically opportunistic government backed by the anti-religious Guardian reading bigots in the media,

  5. Thanks for your comments, Louis. I appreciate your taking the time to reply to my article at some length.

    Firstly, I recognise that the legal situation is extremely complex. I’m not denying that.

    Thank you for acknowledging that no organisation supports the idea of forcing churches to host same-sex marriages against their will. Please can you send me a link to the survey you mention? I don’t doubt your honesty, but I’d like to look at it in more detail before commenting.

    As you say, the Danish parliament recently passed legislation stating that its state church would marry same-sex couples (although they also said that every minister would be allowed to choose for him/herself whether to be involved). I did not support this legislation and am disappointed by it. However, it came about only because of the existence of an established state church in Denmark. It does not apply to other churches. Part of the unfairness of establishment is that some state churches want the privileges of establishment (e.g. bishops in the Lords) but not the obligations (e.g. conforming to equality laws). The CofE, like the Danish Lutheran Church, would have a lot more freedom if it were disestablished.

    It is also important to note that the change in Denmark was brought about by the parliament, not by the courts. Many opponents of same-sex marriage claim (very often) that it will be forced on them by the courts, particularly by the European Court of Human Rights. This has not happened in any other European country that has legalised same-sex marriage, and this undermines any claim that it will happen here.

    I also take your point that divorcees are not specifically protected by the Equality Act, unlike gay and bisexual (and straight) people. That is one reason why it’s important for the new law to make clear that no-one is obliged to participate in, or host, an act of worship in which they do not believe. This right is itself protected by the Human Rights Act. The fact that (some) religious marriage ceremonies have a legal status does not stop them being acts of worship.

    You are right to say that the Church in Wales asked for the same protection as the Church of England. To some extent, therefore, they have themselves to blame. However, this does not excuse Maria Miller mistakenly claiming that the Church in Wales is established. As the person in charge of the legislation, she seems to have worryingly little knowledge of British religious groups.

    You are not the only person to have sent me a link to the legal advice received by the so-called “Coalition for Marriage” (who might be more accurately called the “Coalition Against Marriage”). It is no surprise that some people will give those who pay them the advice that they want to hear.

    I am really sorry if you have got the impression that I think that every opponent of same-sex marriage is ignorant, prejudiced or deceitful. I don’t think that they all are. I used that phrase in relation to people who are encouraging others to believe that churches will be forced to host same-sex marriage ceremonies against their will. I have come across several examples of people who have made factually inaccurate claims (which in some cases they know to be factually inaccurate) when spreading this idea. I’m happy to give you details if you wish.

    Thanks again for the discussion, Louis.

    Symon

    • The poll is here – it is actually 29% not 21% as I stated above:

      http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3091/Poll-on-Gay-Marriage.aspx

      Crucially, young people are more likely to want to force churches to marry gays than older people. This is important because people often forget guarantees made when the original legislation was passed. Looking back at Civil Partnerships is a case in point. Originally we were told religious establishments would not be allowed to perform them. That was lifted last year in the same way there was a U-turn on religious gay marriage before the legislation even made parliament! Looking back at the comments by Jacqui Smith at the time:

      “As we said on Second Reading, our approach to the legal situation is to say, ”Let us devise a 21st century way, a new legal relationship, which recognises the legal difficulties and sensitivities that perhaps not everybody in this Committee may share but certainly many people with religious views would share, about the particular historical traditions of marriage that might make it inappropriate for there to be same-sex marriages.””

      That has now been thrown out of the window.

      There may not be organisations that support it now, but many organisations have U-turned on gay marriage in the last 10 years. Stonewall for example used to be neutral but are now big promoters of gay marriage. Peter Tatchell was previously heavily critical of gay marriage saying things like:

      “The focus on safe, cuddly issues like gay marriage and adoption indicates how gay people are increasingly reluctant to rock the boat and more than happy to embrace traditional heterosexual aspirations.”

      and

      “Equal rights for lesbians and gay men means parity on straight terms, within a pre-existing framework of institutions and laws. Since these have been devised by and for the heterosexual majority, equality within their system involves conformity to their rules. This is a formula for gay submission and incorporation, not liberation.”

      http://www.petertatchell.net/lgbt_rights/queer_theory/gaypride.htm

      Yet now he is in charge of a campaign for equal marriage! What is to say in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, or even the day after gay marriage passes, these organisations and campaigners will not change their mind again and decide that gay marriage must take place in churches for full equality? After all, the only difference between gay marriage and civil partnership, apart from the word, is that you can divorce over adultery (with a member of the opposite sex only!?) in the former and gay spouses would get honours titles. Gay equality has been won with civil partnerships – these two concessions are risible and are far surely outweighed by the fact some religions can hold marriages recognised by the state and exclude gays.

      You say above that an Act of Worship is defended under human rights legislation. True, but if the state recognises the marriage, without the quadruple lock, there are good grounds for a discrimination case to be brought. The only alternative is to separate state and religious marriage – very difficult to do without disestablishing the C of E, which I know you are in favour of. I know you also believe that we should separate religious and state weddings as well, but that obviously adds a cost to religious couples who currently are able to benefit from having both at the same time.

  6. Thanks, Louis, for your latest comments. Sorry for taking a while to reply.

    Thanks for the link to the survey. I find it worrying that so many people think that, but am glad that nobody seems to be actively campaigning for it.

    As you say, people’s views can change over time. In the case of Peter Tatchell, it’s worth noting that he still insists that marriage is not something he’s personally keen on, but he respects those who are. He’s also campaigning for it because of the principle of equal rights before the law. I don’t think his position has changed as much as you suggest. But I can’t speak on behalf of him, of course.

    As for the other examples you give, I don’t think they involve campaigners changing their mind. Rather, they involve changes in government policy. As you say, when ministers introduced civil partnerships, they said there would be no religious elements. This has changed because people campaigned to allow civil partnership ceremonies on religious premises. Most of the people who campaigned for this supported religious elements at the time that civil partnerships were introduced and were disappointed that they were not part of the original bill. Similarly, although Cameron said that religious elements would not be allowed in same-sex marriage ceremonies, many of us campaigned for them to be allowed. This led in part to the government’s current fudge of a proposal.

    Opponents of same-sex marriage seem to have changed their position far more than supporters of it. Many opponents of same-sex marriage insist that they support civil partnerships. In some cases, they are the very same people who were campaigning against them eight years ago.

    But of course, everyone has the right to change their mind. I take your point that some campaigners for equal marriage may in the future want to force churches to host them. I have confidence that most of them would not. I’m quite certain that Peter Tatchell wouldn’t, for example. Speaking personally, I promise you (as I have promised many others) that if, at any point in the future, someone tries to force churches to host marriage ceremonies in which they do not believe, I will campaign against this as firmly and as passionately as any *opponent* of same-sex marriage.

    If we don’t change the law for fear that others might want to change it again in the future, then we would rarely change the law at all.

    You talk about the “only difference” in law between marriage and civil partnership “other than the word”. There are several other differences, including the ban on religious language in civil partnerships (it is only religious premises that are now allowed, not religious language). However, for many it is precisely “the word” that matters. Separate is not equal and language does matter.

  7. Pingback: British Baptists take a step foward on sexuality – but need to go a lot further | Symon Hill

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