It is a huge privilege to be called to speak in this historic debate.
When I was a first-time candidate in the mid-1990s, I confess that I was concerned about plans at that time for lesbians and gay couples to be able to adopt. That was not because I believed that their parenting would be in any way inferior to that of straight couples—I did not, and do not, believe that. It was because I feared that the social climate at that time might have meant that many of the children would be subjected to serious bullying. Happily, today we live in a very different world. Some eight years have passed since the introduction of civil partnerships, and about two years have passed since the bar on religious ceremonies was removed. I believe it is time that we in this House have the courage to vote for equal marriage.
Let me explain my main reason for wanting to speak in this debate. As a straight woman of the Christian faith, I cannot believe it is right that I could be married in a church—and also that people of no faith whatever could be married in a church—yet believers who are lesbian and gay are shunned by the civil laws of the land on this issue, and even denominations that freely wish to marry them are barred from performing one of the most fundamental sacramental and pastoral duties. Do Members honestly believe that we should say to a Quaker couple whose meeting house wishes to perform a religious ceremony that they should be unable to have that, or that we should say the same to reformed or liberal Jews or to Unitarians? What about the United Reformed Church, which brought in religious ceremonies for civil partnerships last year? That Church was created from non-conformist traditions whose adherents were once barred from standing for office in this place and barred from our universities, and whose burial rites were not permitted in our parish churchyards. Do Members seriously believe that, in the 21st century, we should be denying religious freedom to those faith groups again?
There has been talk in the debate today of civil marriage and state marriage, and of how they should somehow be different from religious marriage. With the greatest respect, we are not talking about the ownership of the railways here. This is about something that many religious denominations wish to opt into. That is why the Bill specifically offers an opt-in. As we have heard, Catholic Spain has had equal marriage since 2005 without any challenges from the European Court of Human Rights. There have been more than 22,000 civil marriages in Spain—a country in which General Franco ruled supreme 50 years ago.
Churches the length and breadth of our land have not been challenged for re-marrying divorcees, for allowing members from outside their own fellowships to wed, or for placing any restrictions on who may receive the sacraments of communion or baptism. And let us not forget the case of Nadia Eweida, whose right to wear a cross at work was so shamefully denied by British Airways. She was supported by the ECHR in a judgment that quite rightly declared that manifesting religion was a fundamental right. I believe that this legislation is fundamentally about human equality and religious liberty. For heaven’s sake, let us support it today.