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The British House of Commons voted to legalize gay marriage by an overwhelmingly majority of 400 to 175 despite a major rebellion by Conservative MPs.
Although Britain has allowed same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships since 2004, Prime Minister David Cameron has long stated his belief that they should be entitled to full equality before the law.
In late January, the government introduced the Marriage (Same-Sex Partners) Bill into Parliament’s lower house. The legislation would allow same-sex couples to marry in religious as well as civil ceremonies, though a much-vaunted “quadruple lock” would ensure that no religious organization would be forced to solemnize same-sex unions. The Church of England was particularly anxious about the bill, fearing that since it is the state church, it could be forced to host gay weddings. However, the bill specifically states that the church can continue to pass legislation that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman (under the terms of an act passed during the reign of Henry VIII, ecclesiastical laws must always yield to secular law).
But while the move to legalize gay marriage proved popular with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, it exposed bitter divisions within Cameron’s own party. Last weekend the chairs of 20 local Conservative groups presented Downing Street with a letter urging the Prime Minister to delay the vote, claiming that the government had no mandate to redefine such a key institution.
They also claimed that Cameron’s support for gay marriage would lead to an exodus of local party members, a finding echoed by a recent poll commissioned by opponents of gay marriage that reported that 20 percent of Conservative voters would vote against the party in the next election due to its stance on the issue.
As is typical with matters of this sort, the leaders of all three major parties allowed their MPs to vote according to their consciences. Over the weekend, the British media reported that up to 180 Conservative MPs might ultimately vote against the bill. In the end, 139 voted against and 30 abstained. The dissenters included two Cabinet ministers (Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Welsh Secretary David Jones), as well as three junior ministers. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond and Attorney-General Dominic Grieve both abstained.
The debate on the bill was often quite emotional. Openly-gay Conservative MP Mike Freer urged his colleagues to support the bill. “I am not asking for special treatment. I am simply asking for equal treatment.
Speaking in opposition to the bill, Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale claimed that the government was entering “Alice in Wonderland territory.” Instead of redefining marriage, he called on ministers to “withdraw the Bill, abolish the Civil Partnership Act 2004, abolish civil marriage and create a civil union Bill that applies to all people, irrespective of their sexuality or relationship. That means that brothers and brothers, sisters and sisters and brothers and sisters would be included as well.”
Meanwhile, his colleague Matthew Offord warned that the bill represented a slippery slope that could lead to the legalization of polygamous relationships. Referring to the law on marriage, he said that “another government can simply change the definition to include as many partners as they want.”
The bill will now receive clause-by-clause scrutiny from a Public Bill Committee, and when it returns to the full House, MPs will have another chance to vote on it. Then it goes on to the House of Lords, where it may face stiffer opposition. While it is highly unlikely that peers would reject the bill outright, they may try to kill it by passing amendments that the Commons are unlikely to accept. If that happens, there could be a lengthy period of ‘ping pong’ as the two houses try to iron out their differences. If agreement cannot be reached, the government may have to reintroduce the bill in the next parliamentary session and use the Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949 to override peers’ objections.
Image Courtesy : Robyn Ramsay