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Equality (Marriage) (Amendment)

Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 to include a person’s conscientious beliefs about the definition of marriage; and for connected purposes.

In my office, we call this the Adrian Smith Protection Bill, because it was his case that prompted me to table it. I will read an extract from the letter that Adrian Smith has written to Members of Parliament:

“I’m the housing manager who was demoted and had my salary cut by 40 per cent, all because I said on my personal Facebook page that gay weddings in churches would be ‘an equality too far’. I wrote those four words using my own computer, outside work time, on a page that was not visible to the general public. Yet my bosses at work still saw fit to punish me.

I tried reasoning with my bosses, but they dug their heels in. I was left with no option but to go to court to clear my name. It took the better part of two years, which was a living nightmare for my family and me. In November the High Court ruled in my favour. But they didn’t have the power to order my reinstatement so I was left in a demoted job which carried a lower salary. I have now found a job with a different employer. I shouldn’t have been treated like an outcast, and my family shouldn’t have had to suffer like they did.”

I am introducing this Bill to protect people like Adrian Smith. His case cost him and the charity that supported him £30,000. He got £98 in damages. He was told by the lawyers who advised him that he would be unlikely to win his case for unfair dismissal because of recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

One of those rulings went against Lillian Ladele. She was told by the European Court of Human Rights that she had no right to have her view on marriage respected at work. She was dismissed by Islington borough council, even though the relevant part of her work could easily have been given to other employees. That ruling means that an employee who is ordered to go against their conscience on the issue of marriage has few, if any, legal rights to protect them. That is why we need an amendment to the Equality Act 2010.

There is already a problem, but if the Government succeed in redefining marriage, the problem will get much worse. We are told that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is to be fast-tracked and that full scrutiny on the Floor of the House is not welcome. However, the Bill is not some obscure change in the law; it raises profound ethical, moral and, I would argue, constitutional matters that affect the Church of England. It also raises matters of conscience. We therefore need full scrutiny on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Opposition will press for that. I, for one, will support them if they do.

I have this opportunity, a week before the Second Reading of that Bill, to put on the record the deep concern that exists about freedom of conscience. I believe that that right is as important as the protection of church weddings. The Government’s Bill does nothing to protect ordinary people’s conscientious views. Adrian Smith and Lillian Ladele can therefore be mistreated at work. They should be protected, but the Bill offers them no protection.

Aidan O’Neill QC has produced a legal opinion that points out that NHS and Army chaplains may argue their case for traditional marriage in church on a Sunday, but could find themselves in trouble for articulating the same views in their workplace on Monday.

Marriage charities that were set up to promote traditional marriage at a time when nobody dreamed that there was an alternative could find themselves shut down. Only this week, the last Catholic adoption agency, St Margaret’s in Glasgow, was ordered by the Scottish charity regulator to drop its policy of requiring prospective adopters to have been married for two years.

According to a leak from the Department for Education, officials are worried that teachers will be in the firing line if marriage is redefined. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was pressed on that point by John Humphrys on the “Today” programme last week. She admitted that even in RE lessons in religious state schools, teachers would have to teach the subject in “a balanced way.” Many people in this country believe profoundly that traditional marriage is between a man and a woman, and they want the right to teach that in school.

The Education Act 1996 requires schools to teach about the nature of marriage, so if marriage is redefined they will be required to teach about the nature of same-sex marriage. Teachers who decline will find themselves in the firing line in the same way as Lillian Ladele. Why should we put thousands of teachers at risk of dismissal for believing that marriage is between a man and a woman? Labour and the teaching unions will find themselves in a firestorm if they do not protect their members. Indeed, extant counsel’s opinion tells us that the courts are unlikely to rule in favour of parents who want their children excused from classes teaching same-sex marriage.

This ten-minute rule Bill is not a blocking measure to stop same-sex marriage; it would simply insert in the Equality Act 2010 protection for a person’s conscientious views on the definition of marriage. It would protect those who hold the traditional view that marriage is between a man and a woman, just as it would protect those who hold a contrary view. People’s right to belief and conscientious right to freedom of expression must be protected. That does not mean that those conscientious views override all other considerations, but simply that conscientious beliefs about the definition of marriage are a protected characteristic that must be taken account of.

I believe we must protect the right of conscience. For over a century, atheist teachers have been allowed to express their opinions and no one can force them to teach religion. Pro-life doctors cannot be forced to participate in abortions. During the second world war when we were in a life and death situation, we allowed the existence of conscientious objections. In 21st-century Britain, however, woe betide anyone who refuses to declare full support for same-sex marriage in the workplace or the classroom.

In my time in Parliament I have battled for freedom of speech—we had a great victory on section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986—and this is not a fringe concern. We go around the world—we have just heard a statement on Mali—investing blood and treasure to extend freedom, but let us not forget the freedom on our own doorstep. Some Members who support redefining marriage might be utterly convinced about the rightness of their cause. I respect their views, but surely they must be generous towards those who disagree. They should ensure that the law respects and does not trample over people’s deeply held beliefs.

Millions of our fellow citizens believe passionately in marriage, and they believe their own marriage defines who they are. They do not want their marriages redefined over their heads by politicians. They believe that history, biology, ethics and religion all tell us that marriage is, uniquely, the coming together of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others. I believe that these people are entitled to protection not just in their churches but in their workplace, at home, on Facebook and when they teach in the classroom. They are entitled to talk about their beliefs on marriage—such beliefs are mainstream and sensible—and should do so without fear. If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those with whom we disagree passionately, I believe we have no passion for freedom of speech.

I am grateful for the chance to respond to this motion with the greatest courtesy and respect for the hon. Gentleman’s sincerely and deeply held beliefs, but I regret that they appear to have motivated him erroneously to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I rise to oppose the motion as a fellow Christian who was baptised in the Church in Wales, confirmed in a Welsh Presbyterian chapel, and who now worships again within the Church in Wales.

I have opposed over many years many of the things that the hon. Gentleman has said on theological and political matters, but I differ with him today through no ill will. In fact, I am conscious of the gifts and privileges that we are afforded to listen to views on either side of the debate in this House, and indeed outside the House when we listen to the views of our constituents and the many others who have written to me, and no doubt also to the hon. Gentleman.

I differ with the hon. Gentleman on three principal areas. First, as many hon. Members will recall, the Equality Act 2010 already takes great care to provide protections for persons of religion and belief, despite significant scaremongering at the time, such as claims that we were going to lose Christmas and other such things. Those protections were placed on a principled equal footing with other protected characteristics, including those of sex and sexuality. As the Government Equalities Office made clear in guidance when the Bill was introduced:

“In the case of Ministers of Religion and other jobs which exist to promote and represent religion, the Bill recognises that a church may need to impose requirements regarding sexual orientation, sex, marriage and civil partnership or gender reassignment if it is necessary to comply with its teachings or the strongly held beliefs of followers.”

I believe the Act already provides safeguards against the scenarios envisaged by the hon. Gentleman, and that it does not need further clarification by Parliament.

Secondly, by opening up debate on such a carefully considered piece of legislation in what is effectively a piecemeal way, we could essentially be undoing the work of a great deal of parliamentary debate that took place when we considered where to set the boundaries on “protected characteristics”, and how to balance appropriately the rights of one protected group alongside or against those of another. As I have said, great care and respect were provided to people of religion and belief, as well as to those without belief, to ensure that they could not be discriminated against on that basis, and appropriate exceptions were provided in relation to other protected characteristics to prevent malicious prosecutions—for example, trying to force a church or other religious institution to appoint a minister or priest not of its faith. I have worked for a Christian organisation protected by such provisions, to ensure that where there is a genuine occupational requirement to employ a practising Christian, that requirement is protected and respected.

Thirdly, I fear that this motion is unfortunately a veiled attempt to prejudge and resolve a problem that, in my view, the Bill on equal marriage does not create. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, a motion such as this is not the best vehicle through which to pursue the views of this House on such important matters, given that next week we will have a clear opportunity to debate and discuss all implications of the proposed equal marriage legislation, not just one part in isolation which I am worried could merely distract the House.

The hon. Gentleman and those who support his position will be entirely at liberty to pursue their concerns and lines of inquiry as part of their contribution to the Second Reading debate, or to probe the point by tabling amendments subsequently. I have no doubt that Ministers will be able to assure him that the problem he appears to be outlining will not be created by the Bill on equal marriage, and therefore does not need to be resolved by an unnecessary measure.

The hon. Gentleman and I will no doubt find ourselves on fundamentally different sides of the debate next week. I for one do not believe that my faith, or any other, has a monopoly on the definition of marriage, and whatever it may have been historically, marriage is an institution that I believe now transcends belief, faith and religious conviction. As such, I hope marriage will be made open to all who wish to enter it, whether in the sight of their God, gods, or simply their closest friends and family.

My Church currently does not permit same-sex marriage and will not be forced to do so under the proposed legislation. I will argue from within for it to change its mind, but it is fundamentally a decision for that Church and its decision-making procedures. Until such a time—if, indeed, it arrives at all—the Bill on equal marriage will, I believe, protect those with different views to mine. The hon. Gentleman and those with similar views should have no fear: nothing in the proposed Bill constitutes an attack on them, their marriages, or those who cannot support same-sex marriage and would not enter into one owing to their own sincerely held beliefs. It is inaccurate to suggest that any religious denomination that does not want to celebrate such marriages might be forced to do so if a permissive, rather than mandatory, mechanism such as this Bill is introduced. The hon. Gentleman and others should rightly test and secure assurances on that if they so wish, but I believe there is no need for this motion.

Finally, in proposing a Bill at this stage, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is no chance of it progressing through the relevant stages in this House and the other place before Prorogation, and no chance of making it on to the statute book. I emphasise again to hon. Members and colleagues that next week the House will have a chance to make its views clear on the entire issue, not just on one small part disassociated from the others. On that basis, although my views differ from those of the hon. Gentleman, I will not push the House to divide on this motion, and I hope other hon. Members will take the view that we should not distract from the full and free debate and that we should vote on these issues next week. The House should now be allowed to move on to deal with the other important business before it today.

Question put (Standing Order No.23).

The House proceeded to a Division.

The hon. Gentleman cannot raise a point of order during the Division. He can toddle up to the Chair and have a chat if he so wishes, and I have a feeling he will avail himself of that prerogative.


That Mr Edward Leigh, Jim Dobbin, Sir Gerald Howarth, Fiona Bruce, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mr Julian Brazier, Mrs Mary Glindon, Mr David Davis, Jim Shannon, Mr Brian Binley, Mr Christopher Chope and Mr Andrew Turner present the Bill.

Mr Edward Leigh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March, and to be printed (Bill 128).