On learning that I am in favour of same-sex marriage, one of my local Catholic priests wrote to me recently saying that he would pray for me. Another local priest expressed his disappointment in me by adding that he had hoped that my Catholic background “would have prompted a more thoughtful response and decision”.
As someone who still regards themselves as a Catholic, whose children are being educated at Catholic school, I have no objection to being prayed for. Indeed I welcome it. We all need praying for. But I thought the suggestion that my support for equal marriage was somehow contradictory to my Catholic upbringing was rather odd.
I don’t go to Mass every week and it’s been a while since I did R.E at school. But I have yet to see anything in the Gospels where Christ voiced his opposition to same-sex marriage. I don’t, for example, recall that after Jesus had turned water into wine at the Wedding at Cana, Our Lord then went on to tell the guests at the celebration that he would not have been so hospitable had the marriage involved two people of the same gender.
I was always told that Jesus taught us compassion, understanding and to treat others as we wished to be treated ourselves. I am married – so why shouldn’t two gay people similarly be allowed to get married? At weddings, we often quote from St Paul’s famous first letter to the Corinthians where he told us to abide by three things: faith, hope and love, “but the greatest of these is love”. When the Commons votes today, I will be voting in favour of equal marriage because why shouldn’t two people, who love each other and who want to make a long-term commitment to one another, be able to get married, regardless of their sexuality?
I fully appreciate that this is a sensitive issue and that it can be a very difficult issue for many devout people. And I am pleased that Members of Parliament have been granted a free vote in the House of Commons. This recognises that the legislation contains a significant number of religious clauses.
But there have been lots of myths put about by people who oppose the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. One concern that has been raised is that successful legal challenges will inevitably mean that religious organisations will, at some point in the future, be forced to conduct same-sex marriages. But Government’s plans will prevent any religious organisation or leader being forced into conducting a same-sex wedding against their will.
The new legislation states that neither religious organisations as a whole, nor individual ministers, will be forced to hold same-sex weddings on their premises. The Equalities Act will also be amended so that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations who refuse to conduct gay marriages. And religious organisations who do support gay marriage will have to opt-in before they can conduct the ceremonies.
With regard to the European courts, the case law of the European Court of Human Rights makes it clear that same-sex marriage is a matter for individual member states to decide. Any case before the Court would be brought against the UK Government, not a religious organisation. The Court would be bound to give priority to the rights of a religious organisation under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of religion. It is worth noting that equal marriage has already been introduced in many other European countries, including in Catholic Spain.
There has also been debate around how teachers who are against same-sex marriage will be treated. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, recently issued formal guidance that teachers and other staff will not be required to promote or endorse views which go against their beliefs. The guidance governing these issues is the same guidance that will govern how same-sex marriage in the classroom will be approached. As Michael Gove made clear last weekend:
"There is a significant difference between expecting a teacher to explain something and requiring them to promote it. Teachers are expected to explain the world as it is in a way which is appropriate to the age, stage and level of understanding of pupils. This includes explaining some things of which they do not necessarily approve, such as divorce and abortion. The same will apply to new forms of marriage. Teachers will not be able to pretend that legal marriages between same-sex couples do not exist, but there will be no requirement to promote them. That position will not be changed by the new definition of marriage.”
Marriage is a hugely important institution in this country. The principles of long-term commitment and responsibility which underpin it bind society together and make it stronger. But it is important to remember that marriage is not static – it has always been an evolving institution. In the 19th century, for example, inequalities prevented Catholics and many others from marrying except in the Anglican Church. And in the 20th century, the law was changed to recognise married men and married women as equal before law.
Opening up marriage now to same-sex couples will, I believe, strengthen the institution even further and help ensure that it remains an essential building block of society. It is simply illogical to suggest, as some have, that enabling more people to enter the long-term commitment that is marriage, by opening it up to gay people as well, will mean more family breakdown in our society.
I am very proud of my Catholic upbringing. At my Catholic state school, growing up in South Yorkshire in the 1980s, I was given a strong set of values, such as a firm belief in tolerance, about having a compassion for all humanity, about rejecting all forms of bigotry and prejudice. So I will be voting for equal marriage at least in part because of my Catholic upbringing, not in spite of it.