This week saw another controversial vote in Parliament, resulting in the progression of the bill which will ultimately allow homosexual couples to marry in England and Wales in both civil and religious weeding ceremonies.
It is proposed that religious organisations will not be compelled to conduct such marriages in church. Religious organisations will be able to opt in to holding ceremonies, though to do so both the Church of England and the Church of Wales would need to agree to change canon law.
It has prompted considerable debate. On the one hand, it been suggested in the media that the majority of the public is in favour (or if not, doesn’t actively oppose it) but writing in the Catholic Herald Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth said: “The proposed change will have catastrophic consequences for marriage as an institution, for family life in Britain, and for all human relationships, not least among our young”.
On the Today programme Bishop Tom Butler gave his thoughts in Thought for the Day. They’re worth revisiting: “ Church of England clergy preside at around a quarter of all the marriages in England, and being marriage registrars themselves with a duty to conduct the marriage of any qualified parishioner, there were obvious potential complications for clergy holding traditional views on marriage if gay marriage becomes the law of the land. Perhaps to avoid these unintended consequences the present bill prohibits Church of England premises from being used for such purposes, but the church didn’t ask for such a provision and indeed sought no more safeguards for itself than those provided for other Churches and faiths.”
It’s difficult to see what additional rights and protections will be offered by this step which have not already been offered by civil partnership. It won’t be easy to resolve all the concerns and there will certainly be a great deal more to be said on this subject.
The nature of life (and employment law) is to change and develop. We have seen many changes in the law relating to discrimination in the last few years. From 1 October 2010, the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations were replaced by provisions in the Equality Act 2010. The law outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment and vocational training. The forms of protection are those of direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Protection is accorded to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and heterosexuals and the law prohibits less favourable treatment on grounds of sexual orientation.
The final decision about the legality of gay marriage is in the hands of Parliament. The Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary expressed the view that marriage has evolved over time and they believe that ‘’opening it up to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, the institution’’. Although the bill was introduced by the Government, a significant number of Conservative MPs abstained, indicating their disapproval and disagreement.
Let me close with another thought from Bishop Tom Butler. “A couple of decades ago the re-marriage of divorced people in church was fiercely resisted by many clergy and frowned upon by the bishops yet such marriages today are commonplace.” Time will tell if that will be the case here.
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