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Same-sex Marriage in Churches

Volume 555: debated on Monday 10 December 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Women and Equalities if she will make a statement on same-sex marriage in churches.

Following the Government’s consultation, which looked at how to allow same-sex couples to marry, we will put to the House tomorrow our plans on how we intend to legislate. Our position remains that we firmly support marriage. It is one of the most important institutions we have in our country. The Government should not stop people getting married unless there are very good reasons for doing so, and I do not believe that being gay is one of them.

In respecting the rights of gay couples to have access to civil marriage, we also fully respect the rights of religious institutions when they state that they do not wish to carry out same-sex marriages. Freedom of religious belief is as important as equality. The views that people of faith hold should not be marginalised and should be fully respected. I would never introduce a Bill that encroaches on religious freedom or that could force religious organisations or religious ministers to conduct same-sex marriages.

The case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the rights as set out in the European convention on human rights put protection of religious belief in that matter beyond doubt. The Government’s legal position confirmed that, with appropriate legislative drafting, the chance of a successful legal challenge through domestic or European courts is negligible. I have therefore asked the Government’s lawyers to ensure that that is the case here.

There are long-standing plans to make a statement to the House, which will now be done tomorrow. It will set out the Government’s response to the consultation and outline our plans on how to take forward equal civil marriage, in line with our decision to legislate before the end of this Parliament. I believe that it will be vital to continue to work with religious organisations to ensure that effective safeguards are in place.

Whatever one’s views on this issue, it is clearly highly controversial and legally complex. There has just been the biggest consultation ever, with four times the number of sponsors than any previous consultation. If the Government are going to announce a change of policy, surely they should come to this House of Commons first. May I ask the Minister why the Prime Minister announced on television over the weekend that, contrary to what was in the consultation, he now wants to legislate for same-sex marriage in churches? The consultation specifically excluded same-sex marriage in churches; it was about civil marriage. Now that the Government have done a U-turn on the matter, will there be a brand-new consultation? Does the Minister accept that this change of policy greatly increases the chance of human rights litigation to force churches to have same-sex marriages against their will and that we should have a consultation on that? The state has no right to redefine people’s marriages.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to talk about this today. I share the House’s disappointment that we are discussing this issue in response to an urgent question, given that I am planning to set it out tomorrow. Equally, though, I am pleased to have the opportunity to make sure that my hon. Friend is very clear about the situation. The Prime Minister did not announce anything new this weekend; he simply restated the Government’s position and, in particular, expressed a personal view regarding the possible role for churches in future—a view that he first expressed in July. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is an important matter that should be discussed first here in the House, and that is why we have brought forward our statement to tomorrow.

Let me respond to a couple of other points that my hon. Friend raised. We have not changed our support for equal civil marriage; the consultation that we have just gone through is about how to put equal civil marriage in place. There may well be policy implications, on which I will be better able to provide further detail when the consultation response is set out tomorrow. I hope that he can bear with me on that, and perhaps we can give him the responses that he is looking for at that time.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer, although I regret that it was not a full statement—the media were obviously briefed on Friday. Her answer raises some additional questions.

We are clear that when couples love each other and want to make a long-term commitment, that should be cause for celebration, not discrimination, and they should be able to marry regardless of their gender or sexuality. I agree with the right hon. Lady about that. When Labour was in government, we legislated for the equalisation of the age of consent, civil partnerships, an end to the armed forces ban, and other provisions to tackle discrimination. Many of those measures were controversial among some at the time, but they were the right thing to do, as legislating for same-sex marriage is now.

Freedom of religion rightly means that no church or religious organisation should be required to hold same-sex marriages, so can the right hon. Lady confirm that that will be in the Bill? Freedom of religion also means that people of faiths such as the Quakers, the Unitarians and others who want to be able to celebrate same-sex marriage should be able to do so. The right hon. Lady will know that I have been arguing for this for many months. Can she confirm that the Government will include that, too, in the Bill that she brings forward?

I strongly disagree with Government Back Benchers who are not only calling for these plans to be dropped but supporting the invidious section 28, which would turn the clock back on discrimination and homophobic bullying and which should be condemned in all parts of this House.

I also disagree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). Marriage is not the preserve of any individual faith or organisation. Civil marriage is about the way the state views and values long-term relationships, and the state should not discriminate. Marriage laws have rightly changed before so that married women are no longer treated as their husband’s property and can no longer be legally raped—something that was possible as late as the 1990s. Does the right hon. Lady agree that changing the marriage laws again now to bring in same-sex marriage will strengthen rather than weaken the institution of marriage, and that we should urge everyone to support it?

I thank the right hon. Lady. There are many things that one can control in this world, but media comment is certainly not one of them. However, I also draw the House’s attention to the fact that she asked me a great number of detailed policy questions that the media have not set out, so perhaps that requires more of a detailed policy announcement from us tomorrow.

I agree with the right hon. Lady that marriage is a source of joy and celebration. The Prime Minister and I have set out really consistently in recent months that we want to make sure that more people are able to enjoy the benefits of marriage, hence the consultation that we have been carrying out. I hope that the proposals we bring forward will enjoy cross-party support; that is certainly my intention.

The right hon. Lady is right, however, that safeguards are incredibly important for those who have deep-seated religious beliefs in this area. As I have said, I believe that the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and rights under the European convention will put protection of religious belief beyond doubt. When we, the Government, give our full response to the consultation, I am sure that I will be able to give her and other hon. Members more detail in that regard.

The right hon. Lady is right to say that the proposals being considered by the consultation will work to strengthen the relevance of marriage in our society today and for the future. She drew on some of the innovations that have been put in place in recent centuries; perhaps this is our opportunity to make sure that marriage is relevant for our century.

Order. It is a pity that the House did not hear about the updated policy first, but it is nevertheless reassuring to know, in consequence of what the right hon. Lady has said, that the House will hear about it twice. That is very welcome.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. Does she agree that, while civil partnerships were an incredibly important step forward for gay people, they are not marriages; that gay people will not feel that they are fully accepted in society while they are denied access to what is one of our most important institutions; and that that is the reason for proceeding with this reform? Will she confirm that she will press ahead with it?

My right hon. Friend is tempting me to go further than I want at this stage. We will make a full statement tomorrow, but he is right that civil partnership and marriage are perceived differently. Marriage is a universally understood and recognised status and it is right that we as a society should have it open to all couples. The consultation has been looking at how we would take forward that proposal and I am sure that the consultation response will furnish the House with more details.

I commend the Minister for what I think is her approach—it certainly seems to be the Prime Minister’s approach—but it would have been nice to have had the statement today, because that would have saved us a great deal of time in not having to come back tomorrow. Does she recall that exactly the same warnings were made about civil partnerships? It was said that allowing some faiths to have them in church would force all churches to do it, but that did not happen. Would it not be iniquitous if those churches and faith groups that wanted to celebrate marriage on their premises were prevented from doing so because of the opposition of others?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am here today not because I have chosen to be here, but because others have asked me to be here. As a Minister, it is always very important to come to the House if requested.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that it is important to recognise the different views of different religious institutions. We held the consultation and wanted to talk to people more fully because we wanted to make sure that when we take forward the idea of broadening out the availability of marriage to same-sex couples, we understand in full exactly how it should be done. He is right to recognise that different groups have different views, and we will certainly consider that further.

I say to my right hon. Friend that in the real world this issue is neither complex nor controversial. In fact, if confirmed tomorrow, it will be widely welcomed by millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people across our country. I very much look forward to hearing her statement tomorrow.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a great deal of support for making sure that marriage remains a relevant institution in Britain today. I do not think that this has anything to do with fashion, style or modernity; it is all about fairness and equality. In considering how we make sure that our civil institutions are fair to all people in society, it is right that we look at how marriage works in Britain today.

Will the right hon. Lady clarify something factually? My researches, such as they are, indicate that parts of the law on marriage are opaque and that the right of places of worship to refuse to marry a man and a woman exists, although it can be challenged. In the Jewish religion, a synagogue may well refuse to marry a man and a woman if it doubts the validity of either partner’s conversion to Judaism. Am I right that she is seeking not to force any place of worship to marry somebody in a same-sex partnership, as she has made clear, but to protect places of worship that refuse to do so?

The right hon. Gentleman is right that what I am trying to set out is that the Government respect all religious institutions’ right to determine whom they marry within their precincts. I have set that out as my priority, as has the Prime Minister this weekend and last summer. Right hon. and hon. Members are rightly focused on such safeguards. I am sure that we will look at that matter closely when we talk about the consultation response.

I suspect that the opposition to the Government’s proposals would be far less if Mr Colin Hart and his so-called Coalition for Marriage had not sent out hundreds of thousands of letters aimed at constituents of particular political persuasions to say that they should not vote for their party if the proposals go ahead. May I challenge Mr Hart, through my right hon. Friend, to come into the open and justify what he has done, and to defend himself to the Archbishop of York and the former Archbishop of Canterbury? I think that what has happened is disgusting.

My hon. Friend is right that we have to look at the facts when it comes to the ability of religious organisations to continue to determine what happens in their own precincts, organisations and churches. There has been quite a lot of hyperbole over the implications of what we are talking about. The Government’s objective is simple: we want to ensure that marriage, which is a hugely valued part of our society, is open to more people. I think that that should be applauded.

Having married more people than I can remember—as a vicar, that is—I have never understood how extending marriage to more people could invalidate the marriage of other people who are already married. I wholeheartedly support what the Government are doing. I remind the Minister that the Prayer Book of 1662 states that marriage is

“ordained for the mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”

Why on earth would any Christian want to deny that to anybody? Is it not right, therefore, that the Minister will categorically allow churches to do that?

The hon. Gentleman is again taking me into things that we will come on to tomorrow, such as the role of churches. Unlike him, I have married only once, but I married well, so I am lucky. He is right that marriage strengthens our society and that the proposals will strengthen it further. This is a rare opportunity for the hon. Gentleman and I to agree, and I will savour the moment for as long as I can. I am sure that we will continue to be in agreement as we look at the detail of what comes forward.

My right hon. Friend will know that one of the many important issues for the Church of England and other Churches is that the Bill must do what the Government purport that it will do and provide statutory protection so that Churches that do not want to carry out same-sex marriages are not forced to do so. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that she will ask her officials to work with me in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner and with lawyers for the Church of England and other Churches to ensure that by Second Reading we are all confident that the quadruple lock protection, which will hopefully be in the Bill, will do what we all hope it will do, which is to give the Churches the protection that the Government wish to give them?

I very much value my hon. Friend’s contribution and he is right to say that our objective of ensuring that no organisation is forced into doing something that it does not want to do must be made absolutely clear. I give my hon. Friend a complete undertaking that my officials will work with him—well before Second Reading, I am sure—to ensure that he and other religious leaders are content with proposals that may be forthcoming around the future of equal civil marriage. We all share the objective of wanting to ensure that individuals who want to be married can be married, but that institutions that want to protect their freedoms and religious beliefs have that protection.

If marriage is opened to allow individuals to marry one another regardless of sex or gender, article 12 of the European convention on human rights will apply to both same-sex and opposite-sex marriages. If that is the case, will the Minister seek a derogation under the convention to protect churches, rectors and church trustees who do not want to hold same-sex marriages in their buildings, in order to protect their rights, freedoms and religious identity?

The hon. Gentleman is drawing me into a great deal of detail—exactly the sort of detail that a Bill Committee would look at in the development of any legislation. He is right to say that such detail is important and must respect freedom on both sides, and I am sure such matters will be considered on Second Reading and in Committee. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the situation in Northern Ireland will be different; this is a devolved matter and the Northern Ireland Government may take a different view.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that approximately 500,000 people who responded to the Government’s consultation by saying no to redefining marriage have been excluded from the Government’s consultation and effectively denied a voice, although others—including those beyond the United Kingdom—have been included in that consultation? Is the consultation in danger of being seen as a sham that does not provide the Government with a mandate to redefine marriage?

We have taken into account all valid contributions to the consultation, which was exceptionally important in shaping and forming the Government’s view on how we take forward equal civil marriage. More than a quarter of a million people responded to the consultation and we have taken time to consider their responses in detail. I assure my hon. Friend that those responses were integral to how the policy has been taken forward.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that most parents would prefer their children to be happy, rather than prefer them not to be gay?

I think it is important that children are happy, and whether an individual is gay, bisexual or heterosexual is really a personal matter.

Some of us have no interest in what happens behind people’s bedroom doors but might be slightly more concerned about what the legislation will do behind the church door. In her opening comments my right hon. Friend described the legal challenge as negligible. Will she publish all the legal advice that the Government have been given on the possibility of Churches, and other religious groups, being forced to conduct same-sex partnership ceremonies?

My hon. Friend will know that the Government do not publish legal advice, but he can be assured that the work we are doing is in accordance with the law. I state again that European Court case law and the European convention on human rights put the protection of religious belief beyond doubt. The whole House should welcome that, and we will ensure that we have the sorts of protections that—as I hear from all sides—are very much wanted.

Does the Minister agree that freedom of religion works both ways? Although it is right that no religious group should be forced to marry same-sex couples if it does not wish to do so, the faith groups that wish to marry same-sex couples should be allowed to do so.

I personally agree with the hon. Lady. Indeed, the Prime Minister said so not just this weekend but last summer.

I very much support the Government’s position, but some Churches in my constituency are concerned that they will be forced—perhaps through the courts—to hold same-sex marriages on their premises. What assurances can the Minister give that the Government’s correct ruling will not be overturned in the courts, whether in this country or on the continent?

My hon. Friend is right—we do not believe that any religious organisation should be forced to do something that is beyond their belief and faith. I direct him to case law of the European Court, which has made it clear that those are issues for individual countries and not something on which it will rule centrally.

Some Churches in our country allow marriages only of members of their fellowships. Equally, some Churches will not allow the remarriage of divorced people. Many different faith groups have different rules. If that has not been seriously challenged in the past 10 years, does the Minister agree that it is highly unlikely that there will be such a challenge to same-sex marriages?

With Christmas just around the corner, lots of people might be thinking of giving a dictionary as a present. Before they do so, and for the benefit of dictionary publishers, will the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to change the definition of any other words?

In the light of the Minister’s earlier comments, what is her view of the statement made by her hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) over the weekend? Does she believe it contributes well to the debate?

All such views need to be taken into account. People should be able to say what they think on this matter and we should not stifle debate. Suffice it to say that I believe marriage is hugely important. It is vital that all religious institutions continue to be protected and that we ensure that marriage is open to more people in future. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) are a matter for him.

I am a Christian and I am against the redefinition of marriage, but that is for tomorrow. The urgent question today is why on earth the Government briefed in advance about a new policy and a change to the previous position. The Minister has condemned that herself in the past. Will she have a word with the Prime Minister and tell him off?

My hon. Friend might be jumping to one or two conclusions. It is right that we discuss policies first and foremost in the House. I have a long-standing commitment to make a statement in the House this week, but have brought it forward to tomorrow. I share the House’s concern and disappointment that there has been such widespread discussion this weekend, but we will be able to go into the detail tomorrow.

The Movement for Reform Judaism is headquartered in my constituency, and is a large faith group that wishes to have same-sex marriage. Is this legislation not in the best Conservative principles of expanding personal choice while protecting religious freedoms?

Although there will be a separate Bill in the Scottish Parliament on this issue, there is strong cross-party support for the policy that the Minister has nearly announced today. In Scotland, 68% of people believe that religious organisations that want to be able and free to marry same-sex couples under the law should be able to do so. What discussions has she had with the Scottish Government about whether any provisions in the draft Bill she may announce tomorrow will apply in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman is right: on issues as important as this, cross-party support is crucial. I just urge him to make sure that he also respects those who may not agree with same-sex marriage being open to all religious institutions. It is important that we show that respect throughout. I can assure him that my officials have been in intensive discussions not only with the Scottish Government, but in Northern Ireland and Wales. This affects all parts of the country, and we want to ensure that there is full co-operation wherever possible.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure us that whatever is announced tomorrow, no teacher will face prosecution or civil action as a result of espousing a Christian view of marriage?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, which has been a concern for many of our constituents. I can confirm that nothing will change what children are taught. Teachers will be able to describe their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, while acknowledging that same-sex marriage will be available. It is important to reassure people. There is a great deal of what perhaps one could call scaremongering. It is important that teachers and faith schools are aware that they will continue to enjoy the same situation as they do now.

On Friday, the Prime Minister said that he would allow churches to hold same-sex marriages if they wanted to. Will that be in the Bill—yes or no?

I think the Prime Minister made it clear that his own personal view was that that should be the case. The hon. Lady will have to wait perhaps a little less than 24 hours to see the details for herself.

On a broad rather than a detailed point, perhaps the Minister has, like me, met young people who have been forced out of homes by families who did not accept their being gay. Does she agree that a change towards equal marriage is an important way in which society can send a signal that their contribution is greatly valued today?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we should all be striving for equality in civil life. In ensuring equality for citizens, however, we should respect the right of faith groups to have their beliefs too. Religious freedom and equality are two things that we should all cherish and protect in any way we can.

I welcome what the Minister has said, and I agree with the Government’s plans to introduce legislation to allow same-sex marriage. However, I am a little confused about what will happen between now and tomorrow’s statement. Will she confirm that every single member of the Cabinet agrees with the proposals and will vote for them when they come before the House?

The hon. Lady will know—well, maybe she was not in the previous Labour Government—that we are in the process of finalising this policy in the usual way, but to ensure that the House is fully informed as quickly as possible, I have speeded up that process.

I welcome the Minister’s assurance that if the Government plan to expand equal marriage to churches willing to carry out the ceremonies, other churches have nothing to fear. After tomorrow’s statement, will she seek to reassure those churches that they have nothing to fear from the legislation?

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of providing reassurance and working with religious institutions. I will be speaking personally with heads of religious groups, and my ministerial colleagues in the Equalities Office will be doing likewise. This is the start of a process of ensuring that they can be confident that the protections will be robust and effective.

As someone with a long-term personal investment in the institution of marriage, I can thoroughly recommend it to everyone who wants it. Nevertheless, will the Minister also introduce proposals for those who do not want the institution, such as heterosexual couples who want a civil partnership rather than a marriage? I have constituents who have raised this with me.

I am sure that the question of civil partnership will be addressed as part of the consultation response, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that civil partnership was never put forward as a replacement for marriage, and I am not sure it is something we want to open up to more people.

I want to live in a free society, and at the heart of a free society surely lies personal freedom and religious freedom. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this proposal simply upholds those principles, affording those of us who might want to commit the opportunity to do so, and the power for religious organisations to decide whether to offer it? Given that getting married is a significant event in anybody’s life, I wonder who would want to get married in a church that did not want them.

My hon. Friend is right that this is about personal freedom. Our society greatly values equality and fairness, and for me the extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples is absolutely about equality and fairness.

Many people of faith in Stratford-on-Avon are rightly concerned about the Bill, and I hope that tomorrow we will see freedom of religion front and centre of the proposals, but the big question is about discrimination. Up until 1967, 16 states in America banned interracial marriage; it was only overturned in 1967. I am sure that no one in the House would argue on moral grounds to ban interracial marriage today. Let us get rid of discrimination and protect freedom of religion.

My hon. Friend is right to focus on the importance of freedom of religion and the need to ensure that faith groups that want to can continue to voice their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, rather than between two people of the same sex. Perhaps even more important than this issue of marriage, however, is the role of faith groups in our society. Many faith groups might feel that they have been marginalised in recent years and are not central to some of the debates in this country. This is a healthy debate about the importance of protecting our religious freedoms, while taking forward civil marriage in a way that opens it up to more people in our community. It is important that we do not marginalise people of faith and that they are absolutely respected and at the heart of this proposal.

This country has found it hard to resist prisoner voting, despite the majority of the House having voted against it, so can my right hon. Friend appreciate that many hundreds of my constituents from faith groups are understandably concerned about legal challenge?

My hon. Friend is right to bring up the issue of prisoner voting—it is something that many in the House feel strongly about—but it is not the same as marriage. The European convention on human rights contains clear protections for religious belief, and the fact that marriage is at the heart of many religious institutions’ beliefs means that it is clearly protected. As I have said, we believe that rulings in European case law have put this matter beyond doubt.

Before my right hon. Friend gives us the Government’s proposals in response to the consultation tomorrow, may I thank the Prime Minister through her for his constitutionally rather unusual personal statement on Friday and again thank him as leader of the Conservative party for intending to give Conservative Members of Parliament a free vote? On an issue such as this, that is something we should see across the House.

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is all about balancing freedom of the individual with equality—freedom for people of faith to follow the views of their faith and freedom for individuals in same-sex relationships to take part in civil marriages in the way as heterosexual couples do.

Does my right hon. Friend, like me, look forward to a day when we no longer talk about “equal marriage”, “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage”, but just talk about marriage—a loving commitment between two people who want to love each other and be with each other?

My hon. Friend is right. Having been married for many years—many hon. Members will be aware of this as well—I know that marriage brings a stability to life and creates a loving place to bring up children. That is important to recognise, but we absolutely have to respect the rights of religious institutions to take a different view. As a sophisticated and mature society, we should be able to enter that debate with respect on both sides.

My right hon. Friend said that the views of people of faith should never be marginalised. Will she tell the House how she will square that with the 619,007 people who have signed the Coalition for Marriage petition, which calls for no change in the definition of marriage?

As my hon. Friend will know, for more than 180 years there have been two different ways to enter into marriage—one through a religious ceremony, the other through a civil ceremony—so the role of religious organisations in marriage is there indelibly. To ensure that those views absolutely continue to be centre stage, I am working on safeguarding the freedom to continue to view marriage in a different way in different religious institutions, but that in no way means that we have to stop individuals in same-sex relationships being able to be married as well.

Many Members have expressed the sentiment that marriage is at the centre of religious life—amen to all that—but have the Government considered introducing other forms of marriage, such as polygamy, and if not, when can minorities who believe in such a practice expect their own consultation?

I think the law is pretty clear on this. Marriage is between two people, which means that what my hon. Friend talks about would not be possible.

While I deplore discrimination on any level and will certainly be supporting same-sex civil marriage—I am glad that the Government are now considering supporting those religious institutions that support that—I have many constituents from more orthodox communities, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. What assurance will the Government give to protect their beliefs?

We will be absolutely making it clear to them that the safeguards that are in place are not safeguards purely for the Church of England—or indeed just for Christian Churches—but safeguards for religious institutions across the board. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are different views in different religious groups. We have to respect those views. It is important that we work with all such religious organisations to ensure that they understand the safeguards we will put in place and agree that they will work by providing them with effective protection.

As a strong believer in the importance of marriage to our society, may I warmly welcome what my right hon. Friend has said? Does she agree that it should not be beyond the wit of this House to devise a Bill that addresses the concerns of many Churches, synagogues and mosques, as expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), while still allowing two men or two women who love each other to exchange the same vows and enjoy exactly the same legal rights as my wife and I enjoy?

I am sure my hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about all of us helping to ensure that the facts are communicated effectively to our constituents. There has been a great deal of campaigning on this matter, and people might sometimes have misunderstood the case law from the European Court’s rulings. Now is the time for sober reflection, to ensure that people get the facts rather than the hyperbole, and that they understand that it is possible to provide safeguards as well as equality for same-sex couples in this country.

I congratulate the Minister on this welcome proposal. Does she agree that making marriage legal for a wider cohort of people through same-sex marriages does not in any way weaken or detract from the marriages of heterosexual people? As a House, and as a society, we need to factor in that equality under the law is as important as religious freedom.

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is all about strengthening marriage. Any individual who marries takes on a huge responsibility. Marriage strengthens our society and underlines commitment, and we should all welcome the fact that this move will enable more people to marry. This is as relevant today as it was 180 years ago.

Earlier this year, permission was granted for civil partnership ceremonies to be held in religious institutions. Will the Minister tell the House how many times that has actually happened?

I will have to get back to my hon. Friend with those exact data, but I am sure that all the ceremonies that have taken place have been joyous occasions.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to examine the experience of those other European countries that have legalised same-sex marriage? Have any churches in those countries been forced to marry a couple against their faith?

The simple answer to that is no. Many European countries have permitted same-sex marriage for many years. Denmark, for example, adopted such a policy in 1989, and now Spain, Canada and many others are putting in place similar legislation. This reflects societies that are willing to embrace change while ensuring that protection for important religious institutions is in place.

As a lawyer, I have tested the ECHR rules and articles at great length in the British courts and in Strasbourg. I therefore welcome the proposed protections that will be enshrined in this law. Does the Minister agree that this is fundamentally a matter of choice for the couples as well as for the religious institutions that we so revere?

My hon. Friend has made his point extremely clearly. This is about ensuring that that choice exists. I would add that it is also about showing respect, and that both sides showing respect will go a long way towards ensuring that we come out of this with a policy of which this country can be proud.

Can my right hon. Friend explain why the Government are so hellbent on upsetting so many thousands of our citizens who are in normal marriages, especially at this time?

I do not think that anything I have set out today—or that my colleagues have talked about in recent days, weeks and months—does anything to upset anybody who is already in a marriage. I respect the point that my hon. Friend makes, which is that some people with a religious faith feel that this matter falls outwith their faith. I absolutely respect that, and it is important that we introduce clear safeguards and protections so that he, his constituents and others can understand that we are talking about strengthening marriage and not about undermining it.

The suggestion that the Government’s proposals need not necessarily impact on religious belief is nonsense. The definition of marriage is the joining together of a man and a woman in holy matrimony, and allowing same-sex marriages will therefore require a redefinition of the term. Such a redefinition would undermine one of the basic tenets of many religious institutions, so it definitely would impact on religious belief. That is not scaremongering; that is fact.

My hon. Friend has his views, and he articulates them clearly. There are already two different ways into marriage: through a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony. What we have to do is respect the fact that religious organisations may well continue to want to have a different approach to marriage than the state’s approach. I think it is important for the state not to show a disregard for the importance of equality and for respecting the rights of same-sex couples. That is at the heart of the debate that will be had.

My right hon. Friend shows herself to be a strong and passionate advocate for the institution of marriage. Will she therefore agree to articulate her support for marriage in Cabinet by supporting it in the tax system, as advocated in the coalition agreement?

My hon. Friend may know—she can check the media cuttings on this—that for many years, ever since I have been a Member of Parliament, I have been a strong advocate of marriage. I am glad to see so many people in the Chamber supporting it. The tax system is very much an issue for the Chancellor, but she will know that recognition of marriage in the tax system is important and that the Chancellor has considered it in the past.

Coming from an Islamic background, and with a father who was an imam, may I ask the Minister to clarify what response she has received from the Muslim community on this consultation?

The response from the Muslim community, as I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware, has been one of some concern, as it has been from other religious institutions, to ensure that a clear safeguard is in place for the religious beliefs of the Muslim community, in the same way as Christians or any other religious group want respect for their beliefs. I can give him a clear undertaking that my officials and I will work with all religious groups and make sure that they understand how we will put the safeguards in place and ensure their efficacy.

I look forward to welcoming the Minister back tomorrow for part 2. I look forward to what I am sure will be her joyous statement and to the prospect of questioning thereon.