UK government formally launches same-sex marriage legislation in Parliament

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Maria Miller
Image: Department for Work and Pensions.

The British government formally published legislation today to allow marriage for same-sex couples. The bill is titled the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. MPs would be able to vote on the legislation at the second reading in Parliament on February 5.

Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, said of the legislation to BBC Radio 4: "We feel that marriage is a good thing and we should be supporting more couples to marry." Gay and lesbian couples have been allowed since 2005 to form civil partnerships.

The Coalition for Equal Marriage, a campaign group supporting the legalisation of same-sex marriage, have tracked support by individual MPs and claim 336 MPs are likely to vote in favour of the legislation, while 130 are likely to vote against. Conservative MPs are to be given a free vote, but both Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are broadly in support.

As part of the legislation, the government have included a set of provisions they describe as a "quadruple lock" against churches and other religious denominations being forced to perform same-sex weddings, including an explicit ban on the Church of England and the Church of Wales doing so. The "quadruple lock" consists of an explicit statement in the Bill "that no religious organisation, or individual minister, can be forced to marry same-sex couples or to permit that to happen on their premises", an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 to prevent claims of discrimination against religious organisations for not performing same-sex weddings, an opt-in for religious groups who do wish to perform same-sex marriages, and the explicit ban for the Churches of England and Wales.

Maria Miller said the government recognises "that some churches won't want to participate in same-sex marriages. We are trying to make sure that there are the protections there for churches who feel that this isn't appropriate for their particular beliefs. We know that there are churches who do want to take part in same-sex marriages, so we have made sure that there are provisions there so they can."

Former defence secretary Liam Fox, opposing the legislation, has suggested the European Court of Human Rights will overrule the government's protections for churches. He argued earlier this month: "Any assurances that we are given that distinguishing between churches will not be used at some point by European courts to drive a coach and horses through the legislation carries little credibility with those of us who have watched similar assurances trounced in the past."

The Roman Catholic Church has strongly opposed the measures. Archbishop Vincent Nichols has said he is "very disappointed" the government is pushing for same-sex marriage and claimed it would "weaken" the institution. The Archbishop also claimed of the legislation: "[t]here was no announcement in any party manifesto". However, the Conservative Party's "contract for equalities" for the 2010 election included a statement saying they would "consider" same-sex marriage: "We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage."

A Guardian/ICM poll conducted in December 2012 found 62% of the British public favour allowing same-sex marriage.