If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would be tempted to believe that the government’s currents proposals for same-sex marriage have been designed with the intention of scuppering the whole idea. But this government seems far too disorganised for a decent conspiracy.
In the space of less than 24 hours, ministers have revealed the UK government to be clueless about religion, contemptuous of civil rights and bizarrely ignorant about the history, culture and politics of Wales.
To recap: the government conducted a consultation on same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Cameron’s ministers had been expected to propose only civil ceremonies for same-sex marriage, a sham equality that would have maintained discrimination against religious same-sex couples. Last week, Cameron said he had changed his mind. He backed the right of faith groups to hold religious same-sex weddings if they choose to do so. This followed years of hard work by Unitarians, Quakers, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and other pro-equality groups.
But after the two steps forward came one step back. “Gay marriage to be illegal in Church of England” roared yesterday’s headlines. The headline was basically true, but the situation is more complicated – and far worse – than it suggests.
Ever since marriage equality was proposed, its opponents have argued that churches will be forced to host same-sex weddings against their will. This claim has no basis in reality. These scaremongers are unable to name a single organisation that wants to make it compulsory to host same-sex marriage ceremonies. Most churches have no legal obligation to marry anyone at all. Of all the countries that have legalised same-sex marriages, none has witnessed the courts forcing them onto churches. A religious marriage is an act of worship and nobody should be forced to participate in an act of worship in which they do not believe. This is a scare story spread by a combination of the ignorant, the prejudiced and the deceitful.
Miller suggests a “quadruple lock” to prevent same-sex marriages being forced on unwilling churches. Two of these concern the right of churches not to host marriages they don’t believe in. The other two reveal a worrying ignorance about British churches.
One states that a faith group can carry out same-sex marriages only if its governing body has applied for permission. This is problematic for denominations such as the United Reformed Church, who may resolve to leave the decision to each congregation. In the Baptist Union, there are calls for individual churches and ministers to be allowed to celebrate same-sex weddings if they choose. A positive response to such calls is less likely if the Baptist Union as a whole has to apply to the government for permission, thus appearing to be endorsing same-sex marriage.
The worst provision concerns the Church of England and the (Anglican) Church in Wales. Miller proposes that it should be illegal for them to host same-sex weddings, although the leaders of both have already said that they do not wish to do so.
The London-based media noticed the English provision first, but it is the inclusion of the Church in Wales that is more shocking. The Church of England is the established church and its rules are governed by law. Yesterday, Maria Miller spoke of the Church in Wales as an established church. She is 92 years too late. There has been no established church in Wales since 1920.
It says a great deal that Miller and her civil servants appear to be so ignorant about an important political, cultural and religious difference between the two countries to whom their law will apply. I applaud the Church in Wales for responding to the news by saying that they don’t want to be treated differently to other churches.
When it comes to the Church of England, it can be argued that the church’s laws are the state’s laws. Also, the Church of England is the only church that has a legal obligation to marry certain people. This is a consequence of the absurdity of establishment. Many Anglican leaders seem to want the benefits of establishment without the obligations. We will see them enjoying those benefits when certain bishops rise from their unelected seats in the House of Lords to argue that other churches should be denied the same freedom that they demand for themselves – the freedom to choose who to marry.
We do not need “quadruple locks”, designed to appease scaremongers and homophobes who will never be satisfied with any provision that extends gay and bisexual people’s rights. We do not need special provisions to privilege certain religious groups over others. We need a law that states that marriage is open to all regardless of gender and that no faith group (established or otherwise) is obliged to perform a wedding in which they do not believe.
We could also do with an investigation into the unfairness of marriage law more widely, including the fact that some faith groups have far more rights than others to solemnise marriages.
We stand at a crucial juncture in the struggle for gay and bisexual people’s civil rights in the UK. We have come so far – it’s only 45 years since sexual relations between men were legalised on the British mainland. But a long journey is no reason to give up while inequality still remains. Complacency would be grossly immoral when homophobic violence is rife and gay and bisexual teenagers are far more likely to kill themselves than their straight counterparts. Unequal treatment in law sends out the message that unequal treatment in society is morally acceptable.
Miller’s bill risks being laughed through the Commons and bogged down in the Lords. Certain Tory politicians and right-wing lobby groups are determined to fight it all the way. Cameron and colleagues, offering the bill as a sop to the LibDems, may have little incentive to fight for it. The defeat of marriage equality remains a very real possibility.
I do not want future history books to write that civil rights campaigners failed to act at a crucial moment, that we complacently thought that victory was in the bag, that pro-equality Christians were too concerned with passive unity to stand up for active justice. The future of marriage equality is not up to ignorant ministers, duplicitous politicians or celebrity 'role models'. It is up to you and me.
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and a founding member of Christianity Uncut. His book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, can be ordered at http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion, priced £7.99.
For links to more of Symon's writing, please see http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.