The Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller has made a final plea to MPs and the public to support the Government’s Marriage (Same-sex couples) bill to make same-sex marriage legal.
Writing in The Times, Mrs Miller points out that the legal basis of marriage has changed and evolved constantly throughout the years. “It is difficult to believe now that in the 19th century Catholics, Baptists, atheists and others were only allowed to marry if they did so in an Anglican church,” she wrote. “And it was only in the 20th century that changes were made to recognise married men and married women as equal before the law. Marriage will continue to evolve and, as we have seen, the changes being debated tomorrow will draw strong opinions on both sides.”
She wrote that the proposals for change are straightforward: “If a couple love each other, then the State should not stop them getting married unless there is good reason — and being gay is not reason enough.
“For some individuals and faiths, that statement goes beyond their beliefs and that has to be respected. It is not the role of Government to tell people what to believe. However, the State does have a responsibility to treat people fairly.”
Recognising the split in the Conservative party over the issue, Mrs Miller writes: “As a party we have grappled with many decisions that have not been plain sailing and we have not always found easy accord, whether that is within Westminster or within our current coalition. However, we continue to make these challenging decisions because we believe that they are the right thing to do now and for the future. We govern in that vein and that is the approach from which equal marriage stems.”
Rebutting the arguments that changing the law redefines all heterosexual marriages, she writes: “The changes being debated tomorrow do not marginaliseise those who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman — this is clearly a mainstream view. But neither will it continue to marginalise those who believe that marriage can be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. It would be deeply divisive if in righting a wrong for one group we created a wrong for another. One of the things that makes Britain strong as a nation is the diversity of our people and our faiths; our country has a rich and enduring tradition of tolerance.”
Discussing the religious objections to changing the law, Mrs Miller writes: “I do not believe that equal marriage comes at the cost of faith, nor that faith comes at the cost of equal marriage. This Bill is about choice; it is about giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so, while protecting the rights of those who don’t agree.
“That is the crux of the issue and nowhere is this fundamental principle more evident than when it comes to freedom of religious faiths to act in accordance with their doctrine. Crucially the Bill recognises and protects the unique position of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, whose clergy have a legal duty to marry parishioners — a duty that does not exist for any other religion in this country. Indeed, the Church of England commented on the constructive way in which we have consulted with them on effective legal safeguards, ensuring that they are properly accommodated in the legislation.”
Some of the opponents of same-sex marriage say that the provision to allow faith groups to refuse to marry same-sex couples will be open to human rights challenges. Mrs Miller dismisses this argument too:” It’s important also to dispel the concerns about human rights law. There is no precedent in the European Court of Human Rights to interfere on issues either of doctrine or the tenets of faith in matters of this nature. Lord Pannick, QC, has said that it is ‘clear beyond argument that Europe won’t impose equal marriage’ and I would emphasise that, for example, the legal challenge in Spain to same-sex marriage legislation there did not succeed.
“For those who teach, those who work, those who have children, those who have a practising faith, same-sex marriage will not affect you any more than you are affected already by choosing to live in a society that values tolerance and respect from its citizens.”
Mrs Miller ends by stating: “Marriage nurtures social values that bind families and society together; we believe it is a building block that promotes stability and that brings with it a set of responsibilities and pride. We should cultivate it.”