In an exclusive interview with PinkNews.co.uk, Coalition for Marriage spokesperson Dr Sharon James says Liberal Judaism, the Unitarians and the Quakers have been given “a disproportionate amount of time” in the debate for equal marriage at the expense of “mainstream Christian people”.

Dr James spoke to PinkNews.co.uk at Friday’s Changing Attitude Sussex event at St Mary’s Church in Brighton, Kemptown, where she argued strongly against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill alongside the former Green Party councillor Christina Summers.

Simon Kirby, the Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, and the Reverend David Page, who plans to marry his partner of 40 years once the bill becomes law, argued in favour of marriage equality.

When asked if political opposition from some religious quarters was beginning to wane, with the Church of England stating earlier this month that it will no longer obstruct the bill’s passage through Parliament, Dr James said to PinkNews.co.uk: “As far as the Church of England is concerned, I would simply say that the official position remains [in that] they are opposed to same-sex marriage, I’m not an Anglican so I cannot really comment on their internal dealings.

“I think the majority of mainstream Christian people in this country do actually oppose gay marriage and a disproportionate amount of time in the debate has been given to three groups: the Quakers, the Unitarians, and the Liberal Jews, who between them represent only one percent,” she added: “a legitimate one percent, but only one percent of the Christian population.” Dr James appeared to be unaware that Liberal Jews are not part of the Christian population or that the larger Movement for Reform Judaism also supports same-sex marriage. 

Liberal Judaism, the Unitarians and the Quakers support marriage rights for same-sex couples and their governing bodies have said they would be willing to provide gay wedding ceremonies.

Dr James said: “The major concern of Coalition for Marriage, which as you know stands for people of all different faiths and of no faith – and in fact gay people and straight people – [is that] people of different kinds are coming up to us with legal anxieties and we are saying ‘let’s see how this unfolds’; the Lords are actually dealing with these issues at the moment.”

PinkNews.co.uk asked Dr James if she was surprised that the House of Lords gave the bill a larger majority of support at this month’s second reading, compared to May’s third reading in the Commons.

She replied: “Well I think what we are saying is that we need to look at the issues not just the politics, and there are certain issues that we don’t believe have been resolved yet. There are people of good will on both sides who say actually ‘this has been rushed’ and there are issues that haven’t been resolved yet.”

Giving evidence to the Public Bill Committee of the House of Commons in February as it received testimony from supporters and opponents of the bill, Dr James suggested that teachers would face the sack for voicing their opposition to equal marriage, and said that she knew of many people who were “scared” to go into teaching because of that.

Education Secretary Michael Gove dismissed the concerns and told the committee that the bill poses no threat to teachers who disagree with the reform.

Referencing the concerns of a lawyer, Dr James said to PinkNews.co.uk: “One of the leading diversity and equality lawyers in the whole country, who has successfully taken the British Government to court from the European perspective, is warning that there are serious untended consequences on the way if certain things are not addressed.

“So we are saying actually at the very least a pause button should be hit while those serious concerns are unpicked.”

With equal marriage opponents in the Lords repeatedly withdrawing critical amendments to the bill, Dr James was asked if this was a sign they were losing their fight.

She replied: “I think what they are doing is actually genuinely going through a process, which is a legitimate process…which constitutionally they are there to do,” Dr James added: “It might seem a bit odd from the outside, but they are doing their best, there’s people of good will on both sides [who are] doing their best, as is their job, to seriously look at the issues.”

Indicating that the House of Lords was unlikely to prevent the bill from receiving Royal Assent, Dr James said the job of opponents in the Upper Chamber was to “genuinely improve the bill,” so that if it does go through “there are adequate protections.”

She added: “Well basically at the moment we’re saying it’s not in law yet, and now that it’s in the Lords it’s remarkable how many problems their unpicking from the bill, which it was actually the job of the Commons to unpick but they never got round to unpicking – so I’m not holding my breath – let’s see what the Lords do with it, and at the moment they are going through fairly serious matters of legal protection.”

Dr James refused to say whether the Coalition for Marriage would be forced to accept defeat and end its campaign against the bill, once it becomes law.

She said to PinkNews.co.uk: “At the moment we are in a political process and we have to see how that political process unwinds.” Turning her attention to the way the government has sought to implement the reform she said: “If you look at the way the political process happened in the earlier stages, people on both sides have questions about the legitimacy of that process.”

Unlike in France, efforts to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales has not been met with scenes of violence and political extremism. The debate has been vociferous but the UK has not seen violent pitched battles in the streets between supporters and opponents. Earlier this month, former Conservative MP Michael Portillo said he agreed with BBC This Week presenter Andrew Neil’s interpretation that the country has taken same-sex marriage “in its stride”.

But this view is not shared by Dr James, she told PinkNews.co.uk: “I think a lot of people in this country don’t actually know it’s going on”. When pointed to the fact that most people would be aware of the debate due to its TV news coverage, Dr James said: “No, I think a lot of people in this country genuinely don’t really understand the issues and what we find interesting is that if you actually lay the issues before people, support for gay marriage drops at that point when the issues are properly put before them and that’s why in France support for gay marriage has gone down from something like over 60% to much less than that now [because] the issues are out in the public.”

French supporters say the fall can also be attributed to the violent conduct of parts of the opposition.