Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:34 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of Lord Edmiston Lord Edmiston Conservative 7:34 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, I share many of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Dear, although I have to confess that I have spent many a sleepless night agonising over this subject: what is the right position to take? I, too, am a committed Christian and so I have looked for inspiration as to what marriage really is. The earliest reference I can find is in Genesis, chapter 2, which is often used in wedding ceremonies today:

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh”.

One flesh involves a physical and spiritual union: the joining together of the reproductive organs of a man and a woman; the potential for creating new flesh in the form of a child. Non-consummation annuls a marriage and therefore marriage is, and can only be, between a man and a woman. Marriage in the Jewish tradition was considered to be a blood covenant. They used to keep the bed sheets as proof that the covenant had been satisfied. It is a physical impossibility in a same-sex relationship for the reproductive organs to be joined together, and therefore whatever we seek to call it, it cannot be a marriage in the traditional sense. In fact, it changes the nature and meaning of marriage.

The concept of marriage was not really established by the state; it existed well before our parliamentary democracy and is an internationally recognised institution that crosses borders, religions and millennia. I do not think that we should seek to change it. If this Bill were to pass, in due course we would end up having to create a new vocabulary for words like “father”, “mother”, “husband” and “wife”. This has already been flagged in other countries.

The proposed criterion for marriage is that two people love each other. The word “love” does not appear in the official words that are used in the wedding ceremony. If we accept that love is the sole criterion, then why cannot three people love each other? In fact, some countries already accept polygamy. This question has been asked in Canada, while in the Netherlands and Brazil judges have legalised what they call a polyamorous relationship, a cohabitation agreement with multiple sexual partners.

The reason marriage is limited to one man and one woman is that it takes no more and no less to produce children. If we were to accept that love is the precondition for marriage, why should we restrict it? If there is no possibility of genetic offspring or indeed no requirement for consummation, why should not close relatives get married? If that were to happen, I can see all sorts of interesting possibilities for inheritance tax planning. We would open a Pandora’s Box. I do not believe we have looked closely enough at the unintended consequences.

Despite all the assurances that religious bodies have been given, the European courts can eventually overturn them. I am unconvinced by some of the assurances about the locks that are to be put in place. In any event, a new Government could always remove them. Equalities legislation has already seen many Christians in court, and this legislation will see many more. This Bill will also jeopardise employment and possibly criminalise those with traditional views of marriage. We have already seen cases where individuals have lost their jobs over their beliefs. There must be room for conscience. Otherwise this purported equality for the few comes at the expense of freedom of belief for the many with strongly held convictions.

The Bill purports to address a remaining apparent inequality, but it creates many other inequalities for both sexes and for homosexual couples. Couples of the same sex will have the option of civil partnership or marriage, while at the moment heterosexuals can have only marriage. I know that the Government have announced a consultation on this, despite initially blocking it because of the £4 billion price tag. Will the granting of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples strengthen marriage? I suspect that it will not. Same sex will have no definition of “consummation”. Heterosexuals do. Same sex will have no definition of “adultery”. Heterosexuals do. Same sex will not be allowed to marry in Northern Ireland. Heterosexuals can. Same sex couples will have limited countries in which they will be accepted and you cannot conduct marriages in those countries without their permission. Same sex cannot get married in the Church of England, but heterosexuals can. Instead of equality we will have created a whole raft of inequalities.

If this Bill is passed we will have changed the meaning of marriage to some fuzzy institution without any clear definition and in the process weakened it. It does not have public support. I am not convinced by some of the surveys that have taken place. We have all seen our mail boxes and the number of people who have written to us opposing the Bill. The public consultation took account of 100,000 comments of dubious origin and ignored 650,000 from uniquely identified individuals within the UK. We have seen that 500 imams wrote letters to the DailyTelegraph, and a group of Asian and black church leaders, representing more than 1 million people, have also written. All these comments have been ignored.

The committee in the House of Commons was skewed 70% in favour of the Bill and no amendments were accepted. Amendments made on Report did not address the concerns of the opponents of the Bill, in particular in the area of conscience and employment.

This Bill fails because it weakens marriage and creates a new institution, albeit with the same name. It will limit freedom of speech and room for conscience. It will eventually redefine roles within a family. It will have unwelcome consequences for all faiths and damaging ones for employment. It also creates new inequalities. It was not in the party manifesto and was expressly ruled out by the Prime Minister at the time of the election. The public consultation was a sham and for a change of this importance insufficient time has been given to consider public opinion and the potential consequences. We can reverse most laws that we pass in this place. This one we cannot reverse. Therefore we should take time to consider our approach carefully.