Earlier this week, reports appeared that Conservative Peers in the House of Lords were attempting to scupper the Coalition Government’s plans to allow civil partnerships to take place in places of religious worship.
Like most of you, I was appalled to hear this, and I want to assure people that Liberal Democrats will not allow a small number of out-of-touch people to hamper this important step in our fight for full equal rights for LGBT couples.
Mutual respect for other people’s views, religion, background and sexuality are key to a fair and equal society. Freedom to worship and the freedom to live your life in the way you want to, including how you want to marry, are not and must not be mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, sometimes these principles have the potential to clash and we need to be careful how to balance all people’s interests.
Conducting civil partnerships in religious buildings is one of those. On the one hand, many same-sex couples are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindu, Humanists or of another faith. They would like to see their partnership, their commitment to each other recognised in their faith. However, while the particular couple may not feel their faith prohibits them from being together, others who share their faith may not agree.
We are determined to do the right thing and as a Liberal Democrat I stand firm so that if people want to live together or marry, whether in a church or in a civil ceremony, the state should make that possible, regardless of whether those people are of the same sex or not. Some faiths, such as Quakers and Liberal Jews, would like to be a part of civil partnership ceremonies. On the other hand, a number of other religions are strongly against any form of recognition of civil partnerships in their faith.
That is why Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, carefully consulted all interested persons and organisations on how to allow civil partnerships to take place in religious premises. The conclusion was clear: it should be possible to have a civil partnership take place in a religious setting but only if all involved parties agree. The legislative changes now before Parliament will therefore allow those faith leaders who wish to conduct ceremonies in their religious premises to do so, but will not force the hand of those who don’t. That is the right thing for the Coalition Government to do.
The Tory peers who are now trying to block this from happening are using the pretext of there not being enough safeguards as an excuse. Fundamentally, they still do not believe in equality, in live and let live. They are from a bygone age where you do not give same-sex couples the same rights because you disapprove of them. Of course we cannot force people to accept homosexuality as part of their faith if they don’t want to. But equally, these people cannot force other communities from living the way they want them to, and they cannot bar other faiths from celebrating the love of two people, no matter what sex they are.
I know Lynne will not let these Conservative dinosaurs stop the rest of society from moving ahead. Liberal Democrats will continue to ensure this Government does the right thing by same-sex couples. And we will not stop at allowing civil partnerships in religious premises in our fight for equality. I am proud that we were the first party to make it official party policy to open up marriage to same-sex couples and that in March, the Government will start its formal consultation on how to get this enshrined in law. So that by 2015, finally, Britain will have joined the vanguard of countries with full marriage equality. I celebrate that.
Tom Brake is the MP for Carshalton and Wallington and Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Home Affairs, Justice and Equality.