The amendments to the same-sex marriage bill are demeaning to LGBT people. Resist them and make the opponents to equality explain their true agenda, writes Adrian Tippetts for PinkNews.co.uk.

David Cameron and the Coalition government went out of their way to appease the anti-marriage lobby and traditionalist MPs. The government offered the olive branch of a lengthy consultation, in order to listen to everyone’s views. Assurances were made to backbenchers that the legislation is a purely civil, secular affair. Churches were protected from any element of coercion, and that no faith, congregation or cleric would be forced to conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples unless they wanted to. The “quadruple lock” banned dissenting Church of England and Wales priests from performing marriages for gay couples. Despite all these assurances, the opponents to marriage equality have only stepped up their efforts to derail the bill. And now, panicked by UKIP support and loudmouth opponents, the government is tabling opt-out amendments in order to keep opponents happy and get the bill through.

The campaign for equal marriage was never just about ‘marriage’. For many of us, it was about ensuring LGBT people have the same rights, recognition and protections under the law. It was about outlawing, once and for all, segregation and discrimination of people because of their sexuality or gender. There is no half-way house: you either have equality or you don’t.

An amendment is being proposed that would allow civil marriage registrars with ‘strong or principled objections’ to opt out of performing weddings for same-sex couples. There are no acceptable reasons to privilege attitudes against homosexuality in any secular setting, as no civil marriage registrar is conducting a ceremony in the eyes of any God. Such an amendment would make LGBT people the only social group against whom it would be legally acceptable to discriminate in the public sphere. There is no call to make allowances for biblical attitudes towards adultery or remarriage, for instance, about which the Bible has more to say than homosexuality. Such an arbitrary concession would arguably reinforce the perception of LGBT people as second-class citizens.

David Burrowes MP hails the Netherlands for pioneering such concessions. However, the opt-out has done nothing to promote tolerance: for the reasons listed above, it has merely promoted prejudice. This has been especially true in the country’s strict Calvinist communities, where in many cases local municipalities have found it hard to find even one registrar willing to marry gay couples. 

Equally sinister is a proposal to allow teachers to avoid referencing same-sex marriage and express their objections to it in class. Everyone has the freedom to hold objectionable views and express them publicly. But the rules of expression do not apply in the captive environment of the classroom, where children are instructed under the authority of the teacher. Children have the right to know that everyone has the right to find happiness with the person they love, and that discrimination is wrong. Allowing teachers to omit references to same-sex couples when talking about marriage sends a message that gay relationships are inferior. Teachers should stick to the facts overwhelmingly accepted by modern medicine and psychology: homosexuality is a natural expression of love found in a small section of the population’.

Religious lobbyists are also trying to prohibit Armed Forces chapels from being used for marriages of same-sex couples. However, the chapels are property of the Crown and ecumenical, thus used by a number of churches, such as the Quakers and Unitarians, that support equality. A Ministry of Defence spokesperson states that “…the underlying principle of the bill is religious protection and to ensure that no religious organisation is forced to conduct same-sex marriage.” Surely, the same religious protection applies to those churches that believe otherwise?

David Burrowes says he only opposes marriage for gay people, and that he supports civil partnerships. We can only take his word for it, because he was not an MP when the debates on civil partnerships took place. Yet he proudly stands on the same podium as the Coalition For Marriage movement, whose main sponsors have viciously anti-gay records. Will Mr Burrowes rebuke the Christian Institute, for instance, for campaigning against every single piece of LGBT rights legislation over the last 23 years? 

Will he condemn other sponsors like Christian Concern, Christian Action Research and Education, Anglican Mainstream for, between them, calling for gay people to be banned from teaching, campaigning to deprive funds for youth support groups, linking homosexuality with paedophilia, calling for the right to deny services to gay customers in any situation that might be construed as “condoning a homosexual lifestyle”, and blaming homosexuality for the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust? The crux of Anglican Mainstream’s argument is found in note 42 of the group’s submission to the parliamentary commission on the same-sex marriage bill:

“Gay life is a high-risk lifestyle and people, especially lads, should be discouraged from engaging in it, even as they now are discouraged from smoking. No one is ‘born gay’ and people can and do develop their heterosexual potential. With SSM it will be even harder to tell kids the actual risks of especially gay sex.”

Why are Tory ministers even thinking of making concessions for such opponents? Isn’t it time some of our politicians and media exposed and questioned the Coalition For Marriage supporters about their real agenda, which if they had their way, would be a theocracy where gay people are marginalised in all areas of public life, if not treated as criminals? Ask Colin Hart and Chris Sugden straight up, if they wish for a time when LGBT people were thrown into prison?

Perhaps, too, the opponents of equality can be grilled about their record on LGBT rights during the debate. The source of hysteria over MOD chapels is Gerald Howarth, the Tory MP for Aldershot who has readily and repeatedly expressed his contempt for LGBT service personnel. He greeted the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Armed Forces in January 2000 as follows.

“This appalling decision will be greeted with dismay among ordinary soldiers in the armed forces, many of whom joined the services precisely because they wished to turn their back on some of the values of modern society.”

In 2005 as shadow defence spokesman he launched a scathing attack on legislation allowing gay service members in a civil partnership to live together in Armed Forces accommodation. The plans, he claimed, would be “quite upsetting for families in the married quarters.”

Now, Howarth, like MPs Philip Hammond, Owen Patterson and Anne McIntosh, expresses support for civil partnerships. This sudden, highly convenient conversion to supporting CPs sounds more like a cynical attempt to oppose equal marriage while appearing reasonable. Both Philip Hammond and Anne McIntosh voted against LGBT rights legislation at almost every opportunity in the last 17 years: for Section 28, against the lowering of the age of consent, against adoption rights, against protections against discrimination and against civil partnerships. They should be called to account for their voting record. Do they still support these positions? If not, do they have any sense of remorse for the misery that such discriminatory legislation caused gay people? 

Equal marriage legislation harms no-one; it degrades no heterosexual marriage. It simply restores dignity to a minority of society. If the prime minister caves in to the demands of the right-wing pundits and drop marriage equality, it would reinforce the image of the nasty, reactionary party, perhaps for decades. It would expose a headless leadership that makes its decisions based on who shouts the loudest. It would prove that tiny bunch of reactionary extremists could hold our government to ransom.

The sole question over the next two days is this: do LGBT people deserve equal rights, responsibilities and recognition in society? If so, then the debate on marriage closes itself.

This week, our politicians have the chance to demonstrate their commitment to fairness and put the principle of equality above the temptation to compromise. Is Cameron a ‘peace in our parliamentary session’ Chamberlain or a principled Churchill? We’ll see.

Adrian Tippetts is a freelance journalist, human rights campaigner and PR consultant specialising in the graphics industry.

The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of PinkNews.co.uk