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Comment: David Cameron has to press ahead on marriage equality, and so do we

Adrian Tippetts May 17, 2012
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We should not be too down-hearted to hear from Tory MPs looking for any excuse to derail marriage legislation plans. Judging by their voting records, those who have spoken out would have voted against equality legislation anyway. Defence Minister Philip Hammond, for instance, has never supported pro-LGBT legislation in his political career.

Now that every argument they have proposed against change has failed – ‘marriage is a religious institution’ (it isn’t)’, ‘churches will be forced to marry the gays’ (they won’t), ‘marriage is about procreation’ (at what age should childless couples be forcibly divorced?), and so on, our opponents are scraping the barrel by claiming that ‘we have to focus on the economy’ and ‘the plans are too controversial and would be difficult to push through’.

Well that’s the first time I heard that the Tories were concerned about passing unpopular legislation. And this comes from the party responsible for some of the most draconean and unpopular cuts to public services seen in decades! Compared with the crisis in the NHS, marriage equality is not even on the radar. And the polls say so, too: The Mail on Sunday – of all newspapers- this weekend has found a clear majority in favour of marriage equality, in line with almost all polls on the matter. Most voters don’t think gay marriage is controversial, according to ComRes, the pollsters commissioned by Coalition for Marriage backers the Christian Institute themselves. The poll in fact found that ten percent of voters would be more likely to vote Tory, 13 percent less so, making a negative difference of three percent. The only parties disaffected Tories could migrate to would be on the extreme right, because all three main party leaders have pledged their support.

The excuse du jour is now that marriage equality is not the ‘top priority’ at the moment. This is rubbish. Of course the economy is a serious issue. But so is the principle of equality under the law. There is plenty of time in the Parliamentary year to for the 650 elected members to debate a whole range of issues. They are adults and can multitask, for goodness’ sake. It would require very little effort to push the marriage equality bill through Parliament, especially as it would almost certainly have the support of the majority of MPs. If Hammond were serious about the need to focus on the economy and nothing else, then he would be bringing the troops home from Afghanistan tomorrow. After all, it has been eleven years now, and the country’s human rights record is abysmal.

And maybe Mr Hammond might consider the dire consequences of aborting this legislation. It would show the Tory party as mean-spirited and not to be trusted to deliver on their promises. It would reinforce the image of the ‘Nasty Party’ which would make it less appealing to the young generation of voters. And it would show the current crop of politicians to be spineless, unprincipled, easily malleable, cowardly whimps who cave in at the slightest sign of opposition.

Reneging on marriage equality will only strengthen the hand of extremists who will have learnt that they can get their way if only they shout loud enough. Several of the fundamentalist organisations that make up the Coalition for Marriage aim to strip LGBT people of any rights and recognitions in law. The Christian Institute makes, for example, no attempt to hide its aim to eject gay people from the Armed Forces, while taking delight in the banning of any legal recognition of same-sex unions in North Carolina. Even so, the media refuse to hold them to hold them to account about their blatantly homophobic aspirations.

The campaign to derail marriage equality is working nicely, as far as Colin Hart and company are concerned. With over half a million signatories – still only equivalent to one percent of the electorate, after all the publicity they have gained – they have galvanised their support base and kept their campaign in the headlines by lining up high-profile clerics and right-wing journalists to make statements of such vitriol that one could be forgiven for thinking homophobia had suddenly become socially acceptable again. They copied the strategy of the Proposition 8 campaign, which against all predictions succeeded in California four years ago. They are trying to set the terms of the debate, by focusing on supposed slippery-slope consequences, and by neutralising the support and enthusiasm of MPs, who have no stomach for a fight with vociferous fundamentalists.

Those who are supposed to be campaigning on our side need to show a little more passion and solidarity. Let’s start with the liberal religious majority. It’s as if we have conceded that the phrases to feel strongly or to hold strong moral convictions can only apply to the conservative, traditionalist, or fundamentalist mindset. That’s certainly the attitude of the traditionalist wing of Christianity, for whom there are no serious grounds for debate on matters like homosexuality. As this Church of England legal paper, advising how to comply with the Equality Act when appointing bishops shows, liberal opinions are not taken seriously:

“It is clear that a significant number of Anglicans, on grounds of strongly held religious conviction, believe that a Christian leader should not enter into a civil partnership, even if celibate … it is equally clear that many other Anglicans believe it is appropriate that clergy who are gay by orientation enter into civil partnerships.” (paragraph 26)

The implication, as Guardian columnist Andrew Brown pointed out, is that anyone who disagrees does not do so on religious grounds. Only one truth is possible. Nobody can blame conservatives for being serious about their particular interpretation of Christianity. But progressive Christians must find their voice too. Equally, there needs to be a more unified stand between progressive religious, secular and humanist communities, whose voices are under-represented. This is a matter of urgency, as the church and conservatives attempt to deflect the challenge to their privileges by labelling secularists as the extremists. The good news is that liberal groups like Changing Attitude, Catholics for Choice and leading figures such as the Bishop of Salisbury are becoming more outspoken in their defence of LGBT equality. But it’s no use just making one speech; our opponents’ aim is to drown out any opposition by amplifying and repeating their attacks on equality, in the hope that the general public will just get sick of the issue.

If our politicians honestly believed in the principle of equality under the law, there would have been no grandiose consultation in the first place, and civil partnerships would have been made available to heterosexuals. The whole point is that we do not ask the permission of others to be treated equally. The starting point should be to ask by what right can anyone claim a say in the private, consenting relationships of other people? That said, the consultation is there whether we like it or not, so it’s vital as many of our friends and family fill it in as possible.

We must remain vigilant in exposing the myths and bigotry put about by C4M affiliates through blogs and opinion pieces. We must organise public rallies, to raise the visibility of the marriage equality campaign. We must make sure this campaign stays focused on love and commitment, which some of our detractors have never personally experienced. We must write to our local MPs, and encourage celebrities and other influential people to publicly show support. David Cameron reiterated his commitment to LGBT equality, and this needs to be reinforced and repeated by other politicians, with urgency. Progressive religious leaders need to make their voices heard too, especially as they represent the majority of religious viewpoints on this matter.

If our opponents can spin a story, so can we: another ComRes poll, dutifully touted by the Daily Telegraph, says that 60 percent of MPs think marriage equality is not a significant issue for their constituents. Oddly enough, it is considered a reason not to pursue legislative change.

But if it were known that some key C4M supporters were looking to reintroduce Biblical law, with respect to women’s rights, the complete ban on abortion, contraception, divorce laws, education, freedom of expression and blasphemy, would the general public be so ambivalent about the religious right winning this, which they see as the first of many battles?

Maybe the real focus of the debate should be whether the Enlightenment itself is under attack, from would-be theocrats desperate to take us back to the Dark Ages. If polling agencies shove in a question about that next time they do a survey for equal marriage opponents, they might get a different answer.

The consequences of abandoning marriage equality plans would be disastrous all round, for the Tories, for LGBT people and for democracy. There is only one way forward for Mr. Cameron, if he cares about the long-term reputation of his party: carry on regardless.

More: Adrian Tippetts, comment, equal marriage, gay marriage, Law, marriage equality

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