Earlier this month, President Obama stood at the foot of the Martin Luther King Junior monument in Washington DC and said, "We live in a moment when the dream of equal opportunity is within reach."
His speech was to mark African American month in the US – a commemoration of the darkest days of the journey of progress in the fight for racial equality. America’s commitment to equality is enshrined in their declaration of independence, but no such commitment is made in the British Magna Carta. We rely solely on precedent and statute. In essence, the laws of the land are governed by the the collective conscience of the parliament of the day and what it believes to be right for that moment in history.
Today it is believed that Parliament will pave the way for equal marriage to become law. It is recognition of the country’s changing mood towards homosexuality. Whilst I know that this Bill enjoys the majority and not universal public support, I want to explain why I am voting in favour of it.
I passionately believe in equality. My devotion to the idea that in Britain, we are all equal and that we should be able to fulfil our potential, is not limited. It doesn’t take into account a person’s socio-economic background, the colour of their skin, their culture or their creed. It’s a belief that is subject to a very basic view that one human life is worth no more or less than any other. It is my belief that the laws of the land should reflect this.
The arguments against equal marriage have been passionate and fierce whilst some have just been bigoted. In fact, wading through my post bag and my inbox and reading some of the bigot’s homophobic bile, I have come to appreciate even more, just how far the last Labour Government took this country towards equality and I can only hope that we do it again.
One of the counter arguments that I have struggled to make sense of is the argument from religious groups that marriage is fundamentally about the procreation of the species. Of course I understand the basic reasoning behind this, but if you take this argument to its logical conclusion; are we suggesting that marriages between infertile couples and marriages between elderly men and women as well as between gay people should also be outlawed?
Other reasons include:
- Civil Partnerships have not destroyed the institution of marriage and neither will equal marriage. (Incidentally, I think Cameron’s economic plans which are making life harder for struggling families will do more to harm to marriage in this country than equal marriage could ever do).
- Civil Partnerships have not led to polygamy and neither will equal marriage.
- Civil Partnerships have not increased the number of heterosexual divorces and even if some people have divorced their partners in order to become openly gay, as in the case of the Welsh Rugby player Gareth Thomas, then that is a good thing.
- Civil Partnerships have not led to a requirement for schools to teach same-sex marriage and neither will equal marriage.
Homosexuality was once the love that did not speak its name. Now we have made enough progress as a country to ensure all people are equal in society and equal in law.
I understand that traditionalists will never accept a change to what constitutes a marriage and see this Bill as a state-led attempt to redefine marriage. Those individuals are entitled to their view. It isn’t mine. In fact, it is no longer the countries.
Surveys have shown that 80 per cent of adults under the age of 50 in the UK now support same sex marriage legislation, including 3 in 5 people with faith.
I am satisfied that this Bill provides strong protection for freedom of religion, including safeguards so that no church, faith group or individual minister can be required to conduct a same sex marriage (the so-called quadruple-lock). However, following pressure from Labour the Bill will also now allow those churches that want to hold same sex marriage (including the Quakers, Unitarians and Reform Judaism) to do so.
In the journey that Britain has travelled to reach today’s historic moment, we have tried many times to promote the cause of equality. The Bill which decriminalised homosexuality was a landmark moment but one which was met with a great deal of opposition. Labour introduced civil partnerships legislation in 2004, again in the face of considerable opposition. I would have relished the chance for a Labour government to have introduced this Bill, bringing the Civil Partnerships legislation to its natural next step, but the country wasn’t ready for it.
Now it is.
That is why this measured Bill is the right one. It balances the traditions of religion with the contemporary settings that religious institutions find themselves operating within. Above it all, it clearly demonstrates that in 2013 Britain, the road to equality for the many and not just the few is the path that this country is very firmly on.