I have today sent the following letter to my local MP. If you agree with any of the sentiments in it, please feel free to lift sentences or paragraphs for your own use.
Dear Mr Doughty,
I am the RC Parish Priest of St John Lloyd, covering Rumney, Trowbridge and St Mellons. Firstly, let this letter serve as an introduction, and congratulations on your recent election.
I am writing at this time to express my concern about the Prime Minister’s proposals for the re-definition of Marriage.
I recognise that, in common with many Western democracies, the UK has changed its position greatly in recent decades, first decriminalising homosexual acts, and then introducing Civil Partnerships. We have also introduced Equalities Legislation protecting the rights of religious believers to practice and manifest their faith.
Adherents of many traditional religions, including my own, sincerely believe that homosexual acts are morally wrong, and that same-sex relationships should be given no privileged status in law. As an elected politician in a liberal democracy, while I do not expect that you will necessarily agree with this religious viewpoint, I do firmly hope that you will be committed to defending the freedom of religious believers to hold this position without suffering discrimination from the State.
When the legislation introducing Civil Partnerships was introduced, no recognition was made of the plight of those working as Registrars who held traditional religious views and who felt, in good conscience, that they could not preside at Civil Partnerships. I would have wished for the law to provide them with either a guaranteed opt-out from doing so while keeping their jobs, or else a generous severance package recognising that new legislation had changed the job description to the extent that they could no longer perform it. If this had been done, it would have sent out a strong signal that Britain was equally serious about eliminating anti-gay discrimination and about protecting religious rights. But such provision was not made.
Now, since Civil Partnerships already exist and grant same-sex couples almost all the legal rights applicable to married couples, it is clear that the Prime Minister’s move to re-define marriage has very little to do with extending legal rights, and much to do with sending out a message. It is a message which encroaches on the position of religious believers who have their own clear understanding of what constitutes marriage.
- The Manipulation of Language
At the moment, the terms “marriage”, “husband” and “wife” have clear meanings in law and in everyday language. They clearly identify the institution of a man and woman who have pledged themselves to one another, to form a family.
Now that the law allows alternative lifestyle choices to exist, both by recognising Civil Partnerships, and by accommodating legal recognition of elective gender-change, we have social arrangements which have no traditional language to describe them. New reproductive technology involving donor eggs or sperm, and surrogate pregnancy, also introduces new kinds of relationships.
The Prime Minister has said that he doesn’t want same-sex couples “excluded from a great institution”. But what is proposed is not “opening up” marriage but changing its meaning. Redefining marriage would mean that there would be no word available for those who wanted to indicate that they were partnered to a person of the opposite sex. The legal definition would have such a knock-on effect on the use of language that the idea that there’s something special about the union of a man and woman to produce their own children becomes almost unsayable.
Is Parliament so confident that this is the right use of language for British society that it wishes to drive through such a change? And how does this respect the rights of religious minorities for whom the word “marriage” has a clear and traditional meaning?
Section 403 of The Education Act 1996 requires that pupils in maintained schools “learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”. At the moment, therefore, schools are required to teach that it is important for society that a man and a woman form a stable partnership within which they are likely to conceive children and provide them with a stable home.
If the nature of marriage were to be redefined, schools would automatically be required to teach a different message: “In Modern Britain, it’s a good thing that any two adults can form a vowed partnership. They may want to bring up children so if they are of the same sex, they can ask someone else to help them produce a child which they will then bring up as if it were their own.”
I am sure that many people in liberal Britain would be at ease with the above statement, but a significant minority – especially, but not only, religious believers – would not. The existing provision is not discriminatory against homosexuals, because it respects the intrinsic requirement that male and female parents are needed to conceive a child.
The re-defined provision would be discriminatory against religious believers, as it would make state schools responsible for advocating a position which many religious believers cannot agree with.
If redefinition of marriage cannot be avoided, would you support the repeal of Section 403 of The Education Act 1996 (and any parallel legislation), so that the state schools can take a neutral stance on redefined marriage? A neutral stance is the only position which favours neither homosexual rights nor religious perspectives.
- Religious Organisations and Same-Sex Ceremonies
Culture Secretary Maria Miller has announced proposals to allow religious organisations to opt-in to conducting same-sex marriages subject to a “quadruple lock”. Given that some Quakers, Liberal Jews and other religious groups advocate same-sex relationships, I as a representative of another religion have no business telling them what kind of relationships they should or should not bless. But unless a major religion has a clear and long-established tradition of promoting same-sex relationships under the name of marriage – and I am not aware of any which does – the Culture Secretary’s proposals should be applied to legislating for religious groups to conduct Civil Partnerships.
Mr Doughty, to choose to redefine marriage sends a signal that in today’s Britain, the rights of same-sex couples are held in higher esteem than the rights of religious believers, because the change now proposed is not an extension of legal rights but an act of social engineering. I ask you to resist the zeitgeist of ever-increasing liberalisation by recognising that true and balanced equality for homosexuals and religious believers in modern Britain requires not a redefinition of marriage, but merely fine-tuning of the law so that same-sex couples have the same legal rights as married couples.
If you are not convinced that you should oppose the re-definition of marriage, would you at least recognise that it is best for schools to adopt neutrality rather than advocate for “new marriage”?
Revd Gareth Leyshon, PhD, MA (Keble, 1994), BTh