As the House of Lords committee stage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill began yesterday, peers debated whether registrars, as public servants, should be allowed to opt out of performing same-sex weddings if they conscientiously objected to them. Proposed amendments were ultimately withdrawn, with the suggestion that backers would table a “perfected” amendment at a later date.
Conservative peer Baroness Cumberlege tabled two amendments on the issue. She proposed that registrars who could prove they had a conscientious objection should have the right to refuse to take part in same-sex weddings.
However, she said there should be a duty on registry authorities to ensure they had enough willing registrars to cover ceremonies.
Baroness Cumberlege argued that the proposed changes would “allow registrars quietly to refrain from conducting same-sex marriages only where there are enough other registrars to cover demand”.
Backing the Baroness, Lord McColl argued that if the government rejected the amendment “to be logically consistent they would have to end the practice of making space for atheist teachers and doctors whose consciences do not permit them to perform abortions”.
This was criticised by Baroness Butler-Sloss, who noted that marriages are a “major” part of a registrar’s work, whereas doctors are not primarily providers of abortions.
She went on to suggest that a “middle ground” be found by allowing people who became registrars before same-sex marriage was an issue to opt out of performing them.
The topic of opting in or out of performing same-sex marriage ceremonies was taken up by gay peer Lord Alli, who noted that the debate was giving him the “uncomfortable feeling… that simply having a strong religious belief against gay marriage entitles you to be exempt from the law, but that having the opposite and equally strong religious conviction does not.”
Addressing the Bishops of Hereford and Leicester, he added: “If a conscientious clause to allow registrars to opt out in civil marriage is so important, I will work with [the Bishops] to craft a similar clause to allow registrars in the Church of England to opt in.
“Conscience is not a one-way street. It goes both ways,” he said, concluding: “We all have a conscience and mine tells me that this amendment is wrong in principle.”
Baroness Thornton ultimately ruled that the Goverment would reject the amendments, quoting Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s statement that “public servants will have to be ready to take part in marriages of same sex couples”.
Baroness Cumberlege agreed to withdraw, but noted she hoped to return with a “perfected” amendment in future.
During the debate the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, addressed the question of the Church of England’s opposition to equal marriage and the issue of whether or not it will bless civil unions, asking Bishops “Would you rather bless a sheep and a tree but not them? That is a big question to which we are going to come and the moment is not now.”
Peers also debated whether unions between same-sex couples should be called marriages, or whether another term should be used.
An amendment by equal marriage opponent Lord Hylton that suggested the word “union” is strong enough to describe the bond between same-sex couples was withdrawn after arguments, but not before senior Liberal Democrat figure Baroness Williams announced her support for it.
Former Chief Constable and equal marriage critic Lord Dear withdrew several of his amendments, but has warned he may re-introduce additional measures seeking greater legal protections for opponents at a later stage.