The government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill for England and Wales has officially been published.
The bill was presented in the name of the Conservative Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality Maria Miller and in the names of Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Chancellor George Osborne, Home Secretary Theresa May, Education Secretary Michael Gove, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson, International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone, and the junior equalities ministers Helen Grant and Jo Swinson. The legislation will be taken through the House of Commons primarily by Conservative ministers Hugh Robertson and Helen Grant.
Its official remit is to “Make provision for the marriage of same-sex couples in England and Wales, about gender change by married persons and civil partners, about consular functions in relation to marriage, for the marriage of armed forces personnel overseas, and for connected purposes.”
The bill contains specific measures to deal with the unique legal position of the Church of England and the Church in Wales. Unlike any other religious body in this country, their clergy have a specific legal duty to marry parishioners.
Should the Church in Wales decide to allow same-sex marriages, the bill sets out a procedure for its governing body to ask the Lord Chancellor to make secondary legislation enabling it to do so.
The bill also ensures that Anglican Canon law, which says that marriage is the union of one man with one woman, does not conflict with civil law. This will remain the case until such time that the churches wish to conduct same-sex marriages.
As part of the reforms, gay couples in civil partnerships will be able to turn them into marriages.
James-J Walsh of Out4Marriage told PinkNews.co.uk: “Today marks the beginning of the end of legalised inequality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. But as with all great efforts the last hurdle is often the hardest. The path of this bill through both the Houses of Commons and the Lords is not going to be an easy one. The Coalition Government deserves credit for showing leadership, doing the ‘right’ thing and not the easy thing.”
During an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, Mrs Miller attempted to dampen fears that teachers could face action for telling children they oppose same-sex marriages.
“Look, teachers are able to and entitled to express their views about same-sex marriage and there’s no requirement at all for them to promote it but, obviously, we wouldn’t expect teachers to be offensive or discriminate in any way about anybody,” she said.
Schools currently have a duty to promote the institution of marriage as part of the national curriculum.
A full debate (second reading of the bill) by MPs and a vote on the proposals will take place on 5 February.
More than 100 Tory MPs are thought to be against the idea.
However, the bill is likely to secure a majority in the Commons with the support of Labour and Liberal Democrat members.
The bill would then be subjected to the scrutiny of an MP’s committee before making its way back to the Commons for a third reading – at which point it would then enter the House of Lords.
On Friday, Mrs Miller said: “Marriage is a hugely important institution in this country – one which has changed throughout our history, and continues to change. The values of marriage bind families and communities together and bring stability. I believe that couples should not be excluded from marriage just because they love someone of the same sex. In opening up marriage to same-sex couples, we will further strengthen the importance of marriage in our society.”
She continued: “Our proposals recognise, respect and value the very important role that faith plays in our lives. I have always been crystal clear that I would not put forward any legislation that did not provide protection for religious organisations. This bill protects and promotes religious freedom, so that all religious organisations can act according to their doctrines and beliefs.
“Crucially, the bill recognises the unique legal situation of the Church of England and the Church in Wales. Unlike any other religious organisation in this country, their clergy are subject to a legal duty to marry parishioners. To protect them from legal challenge, therefore, the bill makes clear that this duty does not extend to same-sex couples. Both churches have been clear that they do not currently wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples. If they choose to do so at a later date, they will of course be able to.”