The Government believe that if a couple love each other and want to commit to a life together, they should have the option of a civil marriage regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. We published a formal consultation on 15 March, which considers how to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage. The consultation runs until 14 June. That timetable would enable us to make any legislative changes before the end of this Parliament. Our current priority is the consultation, and we want to hear from all those with an interest in this matter.
I personally support the proposal to allow gay marriage in civil ceremonies. I am concerned, and constituents and local clergy have also expressed the concern, that, by redefining marriage, we may—may—expose churches and other religious institutions to legal challenge and force them to marry gay couples under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that our churches will not end up in the dock in Strasbourg?
I thank my hon. Friend for his support for equal marriage. When we consider proposed legislation, we will ensure that there is no risk of successful legal challenge against religious organisations that do not marry same-sex couples. It would not be religious organisations, but the United Kingdom Government in the dock in Strasbourg. We respect and understand the concerns of religious organisations, and we want to work closely with them to give them that reassurance. Just as we were able to reassure Members of this House and the House of Lords about civil partnerships being registered on religious premises to the point where they felt that they could let that pass, we will do the same in this case.
Has the Minister spoken to the Archbishop of Wales following his address, in which he said that he believes that the Church should welcome long-term, committed relationships between gay people? Can she perhaps engage people such as him in the debate to deal with some of the, I am afraid, prejudice, which some of us have faced in our inboxes?
I have not spoken to him personally, but I recognise that voices have been raised from the religious community in support of that view, and that some religious leaders express the more moderate and quite common view that same-sex marriage is to be welcomed.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, I, too, am moving towards supporting many of the proposals in the Minister’s consultation paper, but I am puzzled by one aspect. Under her proposals, why should gay couples have the choice of something called gay marriage or gay civil partnership in a register office, whereas heterosexual couples must, by law, only be married?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that is in the consultation paper. We recognise that people will wish to ask a range of questions. For example, issues have been raised about humanist weddings, straight civil partnerships, civil marriage on religious premises and religious marriage on religious premises for same-sex couples. It was clear in the lead-up to the proposal becoming part of the Government programme that the priority—and the glaring discrimination—is the inability of same-sex couples to have the same rights to civil marriage as other people.
I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. That is exactly the case: we are not touching religious marriage or redefining marriage. Religious people may continue to believe that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. That is not the state’s view. We do not take the Orwellian view that
“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.