Dr James: We are from Coalition for Marriage. We are grateful to the Committee for this opportunity to present some of our concerns. We are obviously aware of the fact that the Second Reading debate has been concluded, so that is done, but we wish to focus on what we fear could be some of the unintended consequences of the legislation as it stands, and we would like to offer some constructive proposals. I am Sharon James from the Coalition for Marriage and a volunteer spokesperson.
Dr James: We just have one aim. We have an online petition, and people up and down the country have signed that petition saying that they would like the current legal definition of marriage to be retained. We have really tried to steer away from other stuff, as it were. We have one aim. That means that we are representing people of faith and people of no faith. We have gay people supporting our campaign. We are not a religious group. We have really tried to keep religion and other issues out of it. People want us to talk about those issues, but we do not want to talk about them, because it is just about the legal definition of marriage, and we represent all kinds of people.
I wonder whether you have any regrets about some of your campaign tactics—for instance, the distribution of leaflets in some MPs’ constituencies with photographs of them on those leaflets. My colleague, Annette Brooke, would be one example. Sarah Newton, a coalition colleague in Truro, would be another. I understand they were both extremely upset by the tactics that you used, which implied that they were against same-sex marriage. They both voted for the Bill. I believe Mrs Brooke has asked you for an apology and none has been forthcoming. Would you like to take this opportunity to apologise on the record? It will be in Hansard.
Colin Hart: Well, of course people are entitled to ask people to write to their MP. I think that that is legitimate. If newspapers carry a picture of an MP, that does not mean that the MP endorses the article that accompanies that picture. If you look at the leaflet, we are very clear that it is from Coalition for Marriage, not from the MP. If people do not read it carefully enough, I cannot be responsible for that. Of course, as you say, those MPs voted for the Bill. That is up to them. All we were trying to do was to get people to contact their MP to state their views. It is a free country. People can do that.
Dr James: We are very pleased to have the opportunity to let people know the arguments. We have heard from lots of people up and down the country who have said, “We had no idea of what was going on.” They felt that they had not been told what was going on and they were glad, whether they agreed with the campaign or not, to think, “Hey, this is actually going on. It’s raising the issue.”
Colin Hart: To be fair, if you are in favour of the Bill and you get that leaflet through your door, you can write to your MP to say, “I am in favour of it.” We were very clear that all we were doing was giving the name of the MP and how to contact the MP. MPs’ pictures are used every week in the local newspaper. It does not mean to say that the MP endorses the actual article in the newspaper. That was not our intention at all.
Why is it important to protect a legal definition of marriage in its current form? I can understand some of the arguments made by some faith groups, although not all people of faith are opposed to the legislation, but I cannot understand what the objection is from a legal point of view. Perhaps you could explain it to me.
Dr James: It is mainly the legal decision, but it is what lies behind it. We simply represent people up and down the country who genuinely in their conscience, religious or not, believe that marriage as marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Whether it has a civil or a religious ceremony to begin with is irrelevant.
Colin Hart: Coming to the issue of the law, civil partnerships are legally equal. Every right in marriage is given to same sex couples in civil partnerships, but it does not change the law of marriage. For example, I listened to the Roman Catholic presentation this morning. There is a law that says that pupils should be taught about the importance of marriage. If you have civil partnerships, that does not change that law. But if you change the definition of marriage, then every time the word “marriage” is used, that imports a new meaning, potentially presenting issues of conscience for those who never had it before. They could say that civil partnerships were something different. They have the same legal rights, but they are something different. But if they are the same thing and the definition of marriage changes, then it presents some issues of conscience.
Dr James: There have always been changes in the way that marriage has been regulated and modified. Nobody argues with that. There has been that level of natural evolution, clearly, but none of it has ever changed the fundamental understanding of societies across cultures and times that it is bigger than the two people concerned and that it is a building block linking generations. The fact that some married couples do not or cannot have children has not affected that fundamental social understanding of marriage as a building block, creating wider family networks to do with kinship, genealogy and those bigger issues outside the couple.
Colin Hart: There have been legal protections put in place, for example, the issue of consent. A thousand years ago, the kidnapping of brides was a major issue. We had banns and a whole range of things introduced to establish real consent, but that did not change the nature of marriage. It was just a safeguard, similarly with the law of rape that you talked about.
Colin Hart: I supported a PACS-like scheme that they have in France, where house sharers would have some rights. Where I grew up, the lady next door gave up her well-paid job in the City to care for her elderly father. I hardly saw him, but she was saddled with inheritance tax when her elderly father, whom she had given up her job to nurse, died. I had two great-aunts in Brighton. One of them died and the other did not inherit the tenancy, so she had to leave. So I supported the extension of civil partnerships to house sharers in family relationships—two sisters living together, that sort of thing. I was also concerned, however, that civil partnerships might lead to what we have today. A number of people had those concerns. A number of things were said in the debates to try to allay concerns, but as we have seen, this is what has happened.
Sorry, Mr Hart; your organisation, the Christian Institute, campaigned against civil partnerships. That is a matter of record, which we are all capable of checking, thank you very much. You also campaigned against the repeal of section 28 and against every single extension of equality rights to lesbian and gay people in this country. Why on earth should we believe that your opposition to equal marriage has got anything to do with marriage, given that record? It is about homophobia, pure and simple.
Your organisation campaigned, and spent a great deal of money campaigning, against civil partnership. How can you possibly try to weasel out of that now with this irrelevance that you are talking about?
Colin Hart: I am here on behalf of the Coalition for Marriage, and the fact is that a lot of supporters of marriage would agree with civil partnerships. Some would not, but that is up to them. The people who support the Coalition for Marriage all agree that the definition of marriage should stay the same as it is.
Can I ask you what you think is the point of marriage? Perhaps you could explain a bit more the impact you think that extending marriage to same-sex couples will have on heterosexually married couples, and why it is not necessarily just a one-way deal that is on offer here.
Dr James: I would argue that historically when you look at the reasons societies have been involved in marriages from the very earliest days, it has been to do with linking natural parents with their own children. Aside from any scriptural stuff, way back in about 1900 BC you have got a King of Mesopotamia—huge great long legal code, a third of it about marriage. The fundamental point of it, he says, was: I made the father stand by their children. I made the children stand by their fathers. It is just, across cultures, that recognition that there is something to do with that male-female bond and legitimising the children. Frankly, if parents do not look after a child, somebody else has to pick up the tab. We could perhaps speak at length about who picks up the tab when that does not happen, but that is not the point of this afternoon.
Marriage, in a sense, has already been redefined. I would regret that, because I believe it has been redefined down into being just about the individual satisfaction of the two people involved. Sociologically, historically and anthropologically it is bigger than that, and it is more than the couple involved; it is to do with the genealogy behind them, the genealogy coming after them and their place within that. That is really what unites the different supporters of Coalition for Marriage. Some of them are people of strong faith, but many of them are not. Many of them, frankly, are people who have little interest in faith, but they do have an interest in communal stability and well-being.
For many of our supporters, the consequence of redefining marriage would have impacts on children and on society, but they are also deeply concerned that it would have an impact on freedom of conscience. In a sense, that is what we would like to focus on this afternoon. We are hearing from people who say, “I do not dare say what I believe about marriage any more.” A senior NHS executive came up to me two weeks ago and said, “I would love to sign your petition and I would love to support your campaign, but I will lose my job if I do.” We are hearing from people like that regularly.
We are hearing from people who are anxious about even going into teaching, because they fear that whatever the Government are saying about protection, as equality law develops, those protections will be knocked down. We have had expert advice from John Bowers QC saying that the protection as it stands is inadequate and there is not enough protection in the Bill for teachers. At a stage where we are chronically short of gifted teachers, particularly in inner-city schools, if young people are saying to us, “We are, frankly, afraid to go into teaching because we believe in man-woman marriage and will likely find our jobs under threat,” we can ill afford that kind of loss to society. We are having experienced teachers saying to us, “Frankly, we will probably just retire early and get out of this before our position is threatened.”
Nobody wants to go back to the old intolerance, which we have heard about passionately this afternoon, and we would abhor that. But we are representing people who are genuinely afraid of a new, chilling kind of intolerance whereby they will not be allowed to stand for what they believe in. It is all very well to smile, but we do not want to go back to the old days, and I think there are many people of good faith on both sides of the argument who do not want to enter a new day of people fearing this kind of intolerance.
Two questions. First, specifically to follow that point, can you explain why you believe a change in marriage would produce a different situation for a teacher, compared with how they have to deal with an issue like abortion at present in the classroom? They may have a strong moral objection to that.
Colin Hart: Both of us are teachers in comprehensive schools. As a teacher, you deal with controversial issues very carefully. Of course, if a young person asks a teacher, “What does the law on marriage say?”, you would tell them, if the law changed. We are not talking about that. What we are talking about is the fact that sexual orientation is an equality head. It is a characteristic that is protected by law. If marriage is redefined, it would be used, we fear—John Bowers confirms that the public sector equality duty is very strong—that some local authorities could use it to say, “Not only do you have a duty merely to explain objectively what the law says; you must promote.” The advice that we have received is that that could happen.
People say all sorts of things. It does not make them legally correct. I have constituents who tell me that they cannot remove the snow from outside their house because if somebody falls over, they will be legally liable. It is nonsense. People say all sorts of things.
Dr James: My point was simply that with that much passion and feeling—it was sincere passion and feeling, and I take on board that person’s sincere belief, but people who have that sincere belief are precisely the kind of people whom these young teachers fear will launch malicious accusations against them that could lead an overzealous local authority to accuse them of homophobia or whatever it might be. Nobody is saying that it is reasonable, but unreasonable things happen.
We would like it on the Bill—at the top, right there. At the moment, the Bill is all about religious ministers and their protection. Most people in this country are not that fussed about religious ministers and their protection, but they are worried about public sector workers, teachers, foster parents and so forth. We would like protections written on the face of the Bill so that such ridiculous, unnecessary and false situations could not arise and people will be protected, particularly younger people. We have many young supporters. They deserve that kind of protection for their future careers.
We have thousands of faith schools in our country that do a fantastic job. In most of those schools, most of the time, teachers teach students sex education while still giving their view on whether they are pro or anti-abortion or pro or anti-divorce. At no point does that become an issue of not being allowed to be anti-abortion or anti-divorce. If people express their views in a reasonable manner, there is no issue. I am sure that most of us around this table have been to such schools.
On a slightly different issue, many of the objectors who contacted their MPs, perhaps in response to your campaign, specifically highlighted a concern that through litigation, churches would be forced to open up their ceremonies to same-sex marriage. The expert legal opinion that we received this morning completely discounted that in the eyes of many of us. Are you now satisfied that the so-called quadruple lock in the Bill is adequate?
Colin Hart: No. I think there is instability in the law, particularly in relation to the Church of England, which Aidan O'Neill has referred to. I think the issue, though, is not the domestic law; the issue is what Europe will do. The QCs whom we have consulted have a pretty good track record on beating the Government. One of them won a case involving prisoners’ votes, and another established gays’ right to be in the military. The Government do not always get it right, and some QCs do not always get it right when they argue. The fact is that this will be litigated on, one way or another. Already the lawyers are arguing, and it will happen if this Bill is passed.
Dr James: Can I just say again that the concern of Coalition for Marriage is much deeper and wider than ministers of religion and places of worship? We are hearing from little charities up and down the country providing marriage counselling services, such as pre-marital counselling, marital counselling and family support work. A lot of those are run by people who do it out of love, voluntarily, out of their free time, but many of them are people of faith, who say that they could not affirm the new definition of marriage. They are saying to us, “We will just stop doing this kind of thing, rather than run the risk of being challenged”.
Our concern is that when you look at community cohesion, it runs on a lot of voluntary stuff that is done by people not for pay, but for love. We are having people of good faith who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, saying, “We will probably be challenged if we can’t go with the new definition, and we would rather just stop doing it.” It is an unintended consequence. Nobody here would want that to happen. You are all people of good will, but it is a bit like child protection. We have both been in teaching, and with all the zealous child protection stuff, people end up having to have six or seven different police checks for six or seven voluntary activities. What is the effect? I know, and you know, that people have just given up doing voluntary stuff in some cases, because they think, “I cannot face another police check.” There are unintended consequences. Legislation can lead to people stopping doing things that society benefits from them doing.
Colin Hart: One thing I would say is that you have to compare like with like. We do not have a particularly good record in this country of dealing with conflicts of rights. We have a winner-takes-all approach. That is not true in other countries. We do not have laws that offer reasonable accommodation.
Colin Hart: No, but it is important that those conflicts are avoided in other countries, precisely because they have laws that we do not have. They have laws on reasonable accommodation. For example, if you have your registrar in Holland who does not want to do the same-sex ceremony, they do not have to. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands has just said that. Under the Civil Rights Act in 1974 in America, federal law has reasonable accommodation. We do not have that law. That avoids conflict. It means ways of solving problems in the workplace. We do not have that.
Dr James: In Canada, there have been cases of litigation brought against, for example, a homeless charity operating on a faith basis that could not affirm the new definition of marriage. I have not had the up-to-date result of that but I think it went out of business or is going out of business. In Canada, there have cases of litigation against people who have not been able to accept the new definition of marriage.
Another question occurred to me while you were giving some of your earlier evidence. Do you think that within your campaign there are people who are entirely unreconciled to the idea that homosexual people should be equal in today’s society?
Dr James: How would we know? The only thing they come to us to do is—mainly—sign the petition that they want to keep marriage as it is. We are not responsible for their individual views on anything. They cross political parties, and that is nothing to do with us. They can be whatever political party they want. They can be whatever religion they want.
Some people who have written to me have certainly expressed that view. The other thing, if I can just put it to you, is that constantly the argument is made that there is no free speech. As a Member of Parliament—I think for all of us—the past few weeks have been testimony that people feel they can say whatever they want, quite rightly, in this country, and there has been no whingeing from MPs or anything else. People have expressed a view. The papers have been full of it. I do not know how you can even advance the notion that all debate is being closed down on these issues.
Colin Hart: That is a great thing, is it not? It is great to have that freedom, and you have a free vote, but people who work in the public sector will not get a free vote. I think of one case that we had: people have been collecting petitions with their friends, and when one lady collected among the mums outside school, the head came out and said, “You can’t collect for Coalition for Marriage. It breaks our equality policy.” Arthur McGeorge, a bus driver in County Durham, asked some of his friends at work to sign. Somebody objected and he was disciplined. He was worried that he might lose his job. That is the reality of what could go on in some places. It is not going on here, but it could go on.
Dr James: Of course it is good that there has been debate and people have contacted their MPs. Of course it is outrageous that people have contacted you using intemperate or bad language. That is never acceptable, but that is not the responsibility of any campaign group. People on both sides might have intemperate people supporting them for some reason, but as we have said, the public have not had a chance to vote on this. Our supporters are surprised. Three days before the election campaign, Mr Cameron said on Sky TV that he had no plans to redefine marriage. They are saying, “We didn’t vote on this.” Could we at least not wait and vote on this at the next election, or have a referendum? That is people on both sides of the argument, saying that to us, saying, “We aren’t getting a chance to vote on this.”
I think that there is an issue of free speech. I go back to the fact that that things have happened already, before this legislation comes in, that concern us. I was speaking at a conference last summer, along with speakers such as Phillip Blond et al., and they had a whole range of different philosophical and other views, but they—or we—did believe in man-woman marriage. As you probably know, we were banned first of all from the Law Society and, secondly, from the Queen Elizabeth centre, both citing diversity policy as the cause of the banning.
You will be familiar with the case of Adrian Smith, which we are concerned about. Adrian Smith was demoted from his job and got a 40% pay cut simply for saying on his private Facebook page that he believed in man-woman marriage, or that gay marriage in church was a step too far. A lawyer has said that he did nothing wrong, yet he has not received his earnings back; he has not received that job back. Again, our supporters are saying, “That sort of thing could happen to us if we were in the public sector.”
That is why I come back to the constructive suggestion. We are not just here, if you like, to express concerns. We would like written into the Bill some positive protection—safety assurances—for those people who are genuinely worried when they look at cases such as Adrian Smith’s; they would like their jobs and positions to be protected. I do not think that that is too much to ask for, because—I say this sincerely—none of us wants discrimination, and we do not want a new kind of wrongful discrimination.
Before I call the next Member, a few other Members want to ask questions. The questions should be as brief as possible and the answers straight to the point.
That is not what your representatives in St Austell High street were asking people to sign a petition for on Saturday. They were still not accepting that Second Reading had happened with almost two thirds of Members of Parliament supporting it. They were not raising issues of additional protections for workers—they were coming to the issue about redefinition of marriage. I think that we should lift the veil on this. While you are not responsible for the views of everyone who signs your petitions, can both of you give me a yes or no answer: do you think that lesbian and gay people should be able to get married in this country?
No was fine. You have both indicated—and I think we all accept—that there are significant benefits from marriage, in terms of stability, health and happiness for all the couples in that institution. Why do you two want to exclude a proportion of our society from having access to those benefits that you are willing to take as a privilege for yourselves.
Colin Hart: The studies have been on opposite-sex marriage, so I do not know about the studies on same-sex unions. The studies about the effects on children involve a mum and a dad, so you would have to compare like with like. If a union is wanted, that is already available through civil partnerships.
Dr James: For our supporters, this is really a matter of principle. Many of our supporters are absolutely clear that gay and lesbian couples have rights through civil partnerships. Our supporters do not believe that marriage can, should or will be between same-sex couples, simply because they believe that the definition of marriage is the complementary union of a man and woman. Just as two genders are different—men are different from women—they say that it is not discrimination to treat two different things differently. I know that that is a difference of opinion that we have. We will go away from this room with differences of opinion, but I would simply ask whether we cannot at least accept the fact that this very large number of people in this country who genuinely have our view of marriage should not be attacked in a new way, and their view should be respected as well.
Thank you very much for the petition you ran, the number of people who got to respond to that—I was very, very pleased with that. Many people in the Committee today, and many outside, have said, “This is a permissive measure, therefore don’t worry about it.” However, the fact is that many of us feel that it is a coercive measure. Could you give us some indication of some of the examples of coercive measures that have already taken place, without this legislation coming in, which will affect those in positions in public life, such as teachers, and people in churches as well? What do you see as positive protection that may ensure that Churches and people in those positions are not disadvantaged?
Colin Hart: The issue is that there has been no attempt to look at individuals, and that is what our call has been today. There has been a lot of focus on weddings and on church buildings. We would say, “Look at individuals. There are a variety of ways of doing that.” Edward Leigh proposed one way, creating a characteristic of beliefs about marriage. Whether you are for gay marriage or against it, those views could be protected, so it would be even-handed. Another way would just be to make it clear, beyond doubt, that belief about marriage is a belief that falls to be protected. That does not mean that you win, because in this country we do not even get to a balancing of rights when it comes to marriage, because marriage loses, as is clear in the case of Lillian Ladele.
There are already cases, like that of Adrian Smith, going on now before this law has changed. He did not get his job back. The case would have cost him £30,000. He won £98 in compensation. He was advised by two Queen’s counsel that he would not have won the employment tribunal.