The following speech was made in today’s parliamentary debate on the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill by the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, Robert Flello, who is a Catholic.
I’m deeply saddened at the divisions and the upset this issue has caused to people on both sides of the argument.
Some of that division is as a result of efforts to characterise this debate as Bigoted Religion vs Equality.
Neither of those is true.
Firstly true Christians are not bigoted and secondly this is not a matter of equality, no matter how hard such views are shouted.
Some of the division is also down to a careful and contrived campaign that has tried to steer people into thinking that marriage is simply about love and commitment. If that were the definition of marriage then how could anyone deny a same-sex couple such recognition? But it most certainly isn’t the definition of marriage.
This Bill also falls foul of Parliament’s convention of not legislating retrospectively. By changing the fundamental nature of marriage all those people throughout history and indeed who will marry before this Bill becomes law will have their marriage retrospectively altered. Is that really the wish of Parliament?
Under the law as it stands, and has been tested in the courts including in the European Court of Human Rights, Civil Partnerships are equal to marriage. They may not have the same name, but then as I will explain, they are not the same.
It is argued that society views marriage and civil partnerships as different and same-sex couples feel that their relationship isn’t valued by society in the same way as is marriage.
It is not even ten years since Civil Partnerships were created and already society has moved ahead in its appreciation of the commitment that such a formal partnership demonstrates.
But perhaps society doesn’t view Civil Partnerships as exactly identical to marriage because society views marriage as the union of a man and a woman for the creation and care of children. It is not simply about the love and commitment of the happy couple at all.
On the other hand civil partnerships are a celebration and recognition of the love and commitment between two people of the same gender.
Simply changing something’s name doesn’t change what it is, but there has been an assumption and gradual re-definition in the debate about what marriage actually is.
What is marriage?
Marriage could be put scientifically as the union of two biologically complementary people who, generically, have the ability to procreate and continue the human race and for the care of their children.
Society, which I accept has changed some of the rules around marriage, views marriage as being the basic building block of a family. And that’s not to say that other forms of family can’t exist, indeed there are loving and nurturing families of all types including same-sex ones.
But society in the form of the State has sought to treat marriage in a special way in recognition of its intrinsic, child-centred nature. That’s the only reason why the State has had any interest in marriage at all.
Marriage is not simply about love and commitment, as important as those are in their own way.
If marriage were simply about love and commitment we would firstly have to define love as being sexual love otherwise non-sexual relationships that are based on love and commitment would also have to be treated as marriage if this really were about this definition of equality.
Moreover, if marriage is solely about sexual love and commitment then polygamous and polyandrous marriages built on those two foundations would also have to come within the definition of marriage if this really were about equality.
But if the definition of marriage is simply love and commitment, why is the state interested at all? What business is it of the State to register and record such unions? No, it is precisely because marriage is about so much more that the State has historically wanted to be involved.
The irony of the Bill is that it takes the current situation of equality of marriage and civil partnership and creates inequality.
Under the terms of the Bill there will be marriage, but in two forms. This is due to the clauses dealing with consummation and adultery. There will therefore be traditional marriage and same-sex marriage. That’s neither the same or equal!
The Bill creates further inequality with traditional marriages being allowed in some churches and same-sex marriages not.
Finally, same-sex couples will have the choice of civil partnership or marriage whereas opposite sex couples can only have traditional marriages. Yet more inequality!
No, this Bill is trying to engineer some form of cultural equivalence to tackle a perceived lack of equality in wider society. That doesn’t sound much like the basis of marriage to me.
Now so far I’ve not mentioned faith, and barely mentioned church or religion in explaining my position even though some have tried to say any opposition is unwarranted religious interference.
But it is right to considering the position of religious organisations who may have a fundamental opposition to changing the very basis of marriage.
The government and my own front bench have said repeatedly that the Bill as drafted protects any religious organisation that wants to refrain from celebrating same-sex marriages. However, there are conflicting legal opinions which very robustly challenge that view.
So let’s start by assuming that the government is correct and that a religious organisation, let’s say the Church of England, can successfully withstand a legal challenge.
Well firstly there is the cost and time and anguish for all parties in taking and defending such an action, not to mention the uncertainty while awaiting a decision.
While it would indeed be the UK government that would be taken to the European Court, nevertheless the initial action would be against the church or religious body refusing to conduct the wedding.
Moreover, there is absolutely nothing to stop a future government enacting legislation to overturn the current Bill and to allow or indeed require the Church of England to celebrate same-sex marriages. In fact some commentators have said they can’t wait until the Church of England and other faiths do have to conduct same-sex marriages.
If we consider the position that the Bill does create inequality, the legal challenge would surely be successful? Where does that place the Church of England and other faiths? Two gay Muslims could then demand to have their union celebrated by their Imam, the local Catholic Priest would be required to marry two gay Catholics, and so on.
Is this a good example of liberal intolerance at work?
Now because I think this Bill and the principle behind it, which is to change the fundamental character of marriage, is flawed I will be voting against Second Reading and would urge colleagues on my own benches who share my views to do likewise if they feel able.
But no doubt this Bill will get its Second Reading and proceed to Committee stage. I had intended to offer a possible solution to the seeming impasse but that might just muddy even further a situation where there has already been deliberate muddying so I will save any suggestions for future stages of the Bill.
I was amazed that the government should bring forward this Bill at a time when there are so many other pressing issues. Furthermore, despite having gay friends and relatives this issue has never once been brought to my attention. I’ve never had a constituent write to me asking me to raise the issue of same-sex marriage.
I recall how so many MPs were quick to praise the Civil Partnership legislation as being everything the gay community had wanted and created the equality they had sought for so long. Indeed one honourable friend even went so far as to rubbish any idea that the gay community would wish to copy marriage in any sense.
Marriage is the union of a man and a woman open to the creation and care of children and this legislation will fundamentally change that.
I will be opposing this Bill and I would urge all colleagues who might otherwise abstain to join me in the No Lobby.