Today Theresa May joined her Liberal Democrat colleague Lynne Featherstone and her Labour opposite number Yvette Cooper in backing the Out4Marriage campaign. And she couldn’t have chosen a more significant day to do so.
Today, it was revealed in the House of Commons, that backbench Conservative MPs will be given a ‘free vote’ on the legislation to introduce marriage equality for same-sex and opposite sex couples. The Government hasn’t confirmed if ministers will be expected to vote with the Government. Just yesterday, Mrs May’s colleague, the Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson announced that he was not Out4Marriage. PinkNews.co.uk has made clear for many years in editorials that we do not agree with the notion of ‘free votes’ on issues of equality.
By making clear her personal commitment, backing a lobbying campaign, during a consultation process that she will preside over, Mrs May has made a very bold statement to her Conservative colleagues. As the Independent notes in its leader “Home Secretary Theresa May’s enthusiastic support – not least her video for the Out4Marriage campaign – blazes a trail that her Conservative colleagues should follow.”
In 2010 when she was appointed Home Secretary and Minister for Equality, PinkNews.co.uk raised concerns about Mrs May’s suitability for the role. The concerns were raised in relation to her voting record, which included voting against an equal age of consent, against the repeal of section 28 and against gay couples jointly adopting children. Although in all of these cases, she voted in line with the Conservative Party leader and often 3-line-whips. However, some senior Conservatives such as current Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, voted for equality and against the position of the party leadership. But in a free vote, Mrs May did support the introduction of Civil Partnerships.
Not long after she was appointed as Minister for Equality, Mrs May asked to write an article for PinkNews.co.uk, in it she said: “My goal, as minister for women and equality, is for us to work together to tackle discrimination and make our country one that is more tolerant, more equal and fairer for all.”
Today she said: “I believe if two people care for each other, if they love each other, if they want to commit to each other and spend the rest of their lives together then they should be able to get married and that marriage should be for everyone and that’s why I’m coming Out4Marriage.”
By continuing to support the introduction of marriage equality, Mrs May may yet help complete turning Britain into a more tolerant and equal society. If she is successful, Mrs May will join a select, and primarily Labour group of Home Secretaries, that have been responsible for a fundamental shift forward in the equality of LGBT people in Britain. But PinkNews.co.uk belives the Government could and should go further.
The current plans are to introduce equal civil marriage, in other words, redefining the existing civil partnerships system as civil marriages. What the Government is not currently proposing, is to allow for religious same-sex marriages performed by churches and synagogues that are willing to do so.
Correctly, Yvette Cooper, the Labour Shadow Home Secretary called for this right in her Out4Marriage video. Without a permissive change in the law, the Government risks introducing a new level of religious discrimination in Britain. Churches like the Unitarians and Quakers as well as Liberal and Reform Judaism, will see their rights trampled over by illiberal and homophobic religious institutions.
Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers have privately told PinkNews.co.uk that it is only logical that this discrepancy is resolved following the consultation period. Indeed the original official announcements relating to the consideration of same-sex marriage included quotations from the Quakers calling for religious same-sex marriage. But they have also stressed that that this desire needs to be communicated by members of both the LGBT and religious communities in the form of the Home Office consultation. It is therefore imperative that everyone makes it clear that they support equal marriage and the right for religious groups to solemnize same-sex marriages if they wish to do so.
Equally, if we are to have full equality, then civil partnerships must be opened up to opposite sex couples. It would be a bizarre situation if a gay couple had more rights than a straight couple.
Given the clear cross-party support for this issue, PinkNews.co.uk believes the Government could and should bring forward equal marriage legislation as soon as possible after the results of the Home Office consultation are published. Delaying a vote until next 2013 or even 2014 does not seem logical, as it is clear that in the Commons at least, a bill would pass.
But back to her Out4Marriage video, today Mrs May showed us that when it comes to marriage equality, she is on the right side of history. The challenge to her Conservative colleagues, now with a free vote, is to prove that they are too.