Same Sex Marriage
Email Campaign

I have spent a lot of time considering the arguments for and against the proposal to legislate to allow same sex marriage, studying carefully the many letters and emails I have received with often sharply contrasting views, and conducting my own online survey.

Despite the very strong feelings on both sides, my initial view that the arguments are, in fact, finely balanced has been reinforced. I also believe that the change from civil partnership to marriage is more modest in its impact than both sides of the argument seem to suggest. I am clear that this issue is very far from one of the most pressing facing the nation and I am sorry that so much effort has had to be expended on such a divisive subject.

Over the last few months I have been encouraged to see in the letters and emails sent to me a strong sense of the need for human beings to be able to build deep, loving, faithful and enduring relationships with their chosen partner, irrespective of whether that partner is of the same sex or not. Although I was disappointed to see in some letters a scepticism, occasionally tinged with hostility, about the ability of a same sex relationship to have those qualities, it is clear that a large number of those who object to same sex marriage do support the existing civil partnership arrangements.

Many of the objectors to the new proposals simply and sincerely believe that the very word "marriage" is about a relationship between a man and a woman and that politicians cannot alter the meanings of words by legislation. This is a view that demands to be respected. However, despite the stridency of some, I believe we should welcome the evidence of strong and increasing support for the concept and value of a legal relationship between two people in a same sex relationship.

I remain concerned about two aspects of the status of civil partnerships. First, that no ceremony is possible at the time of civil registration if conducted at a registry office, while civil marriages are accompanied by such a ceremony. If we value the public declaration of commitment then the same arrangements should be available for both civil partnerships and marriage. Second, that the requirement to declare on any form that an individual is in a civil partnership is to identify that person as a homosexual. In a society where, regrettably, discrimination against homosexual people is still often experienced, I believe we should respect the rights of those who do not wish, say, employers to be aware of their sexual orientation, not to be forced to reveal it.

The resolution of these two issues, of course, does not require the replacement of civil partnerships with same sex marriage. Permission to hold ceremonies alongside registration of civil partnerships could easily be granted, and new rules to end unintentional discrimination in official and other forms could easily be established. However, it is also clear that the most straightforward way to address these real issues would be to establish a single way of uniting all couples in civil ceremonies.

Society is changing rapidly and the widespread acceptance of civil partnerships so quickly after their establishment is a cause for optimism that discrimination against homosexual people is declining quickly. However, such discrimination still exists and I am anxious that my vote should give no comfort to those who maintain discriminatory attitudes.

In this context it is clear that claims made by proponents of both change and the status quo that society is either overwhelmingly for or against same sex marriage are misplaced. My own survey revealed what I had expected a modest but significant majority opposed to same sex marriages, with attitudes to the subject closely correlated with age. The overwhelming majority of younger people support the change while the overwhelming majority of older ones oppose it.

I am very conscious, therefore, that forcing same sex marriage through Parliament in the face of such sincere and deeply held concerns would cause real hurt to large numbers of sincere and genuine people.

A democracy must balance the rights of all its citizens; in this case, that means we must end discrimination against homosexuals without, wherever possible, causing unnecessary offence to others. We must balance the rights of all members of our society. However, even if ending discrimination means causing offence, it will often be the right moral choice.

It is also important to be pragmatic - the attitudes of younger people mean that change would certainly happen at a later date without significant controversy, irrespective of the decision reached in this Parliament, but I recognise that many people feel strongly that the time has not yet arrived for this particular alteration to our long-established social structures.

Importantly, in practice the legislation, if it is introduced, would be largely for the benefit of younger people who are forming and will form the relationships governed by any new law. Their views must therefore carry more weight than those older people whom this legislation will affect only indirectly.

In a similarly pragmatic vein, it is also true that it is inevitable that the legislation will pass through the House of Commons quite easily - virtually all Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs and many Conservative MPs will vote for it and a large majority is inevitable.

I am conscious of the disappointment my decision will cause many people who I know and respect, but on three principle grounds I have decided to support the legislation.

First, although I believe the move is premature, I am clear that, were it to be rejected this time, it would only be a matter of time until similar legislation does pass. The debate does not need to be had again in the next Parliament.

Second, I am not prepared to allow my vote to be seen to support the residual discrimination against homosexuality in our society, as it surely would be were I to vote against these proposals. It is time to end all such discrimination.

Third, and most importantly, the young people who would take advantage of the opportunity for same sex marriage, and their heterosexual friends of the same generation, overwhelmingly wish the change to be made. I can see no sufficiently compelling reason why their clearly expressed wishes should not be respected.

Although I do not accept the arguments of some Christians that homosexuality is in some sense incompatible with Christianity, I do strongly believe that churches and religious congregations of any faith or denomination should be protected absolutely from being forced to conduct same sex marriages. I recognise the concerns of some that human rights legislation may make this difficult to guarantee, and I am following the developments as the Government seeks to ensure appropriate steps are taken to give absolute guarantees to religious communities. I note, however, that churches that do not condone divorce have had no difficulty in refusing marriage ceremonies to divorcees. And I do not believe that a same sex couple would wish to celebrate their relationship where they knew they were profoundly unwelcome. So I am confident that full safeguards can be provided for dissenting churches and individual ministers of religion both in law and in practice.

Finally, I am also sorry that this debate about one specific aspect of marriage has obscured what I regard as a more important question the strength of marriage itself as an institution and the consequences for society of its diminution. If only we had given the same attention to the challenges to marriage and the family as we have to the question of same sex relationships.

I am clear we should encourage and celebrate the public declaration of loving commitment that is expressed in marriage. Society is stronger and individuals are happier as a result of such commitment.

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