Simon Reevell is the Member of Parliament for Dewsbury. Follow Simon on Twitter.
Recently the Chancellor joined the Prime Minister in announcing his support for "gay marriage". Whether the Chancellor is an objective supporter of the proposal or whether he perceives electoral advantage in a proposal that some believe will positively impact on the image of the Conservative Party is unclear. It is perhaps safe to assume that he is motivated by at least one of those considerations.
If objective support is behind the Chancellor’s recent statement about this proposal, it is worth asking what exactly he believes the proposal to be.
In its current form, it amounts to a proposal to allow same sex marriage but to do so by way of legislation that, it is said, will exempt religious groups from its ambit. In other words, Parliament will legislate to end what it has identified as discrimination – same sex couples not being able to marry – but, within that anti-discrimination legislation, Parliament will preserve the right of some people (religious organisations) to behave in a manner that has been identified as discriminatory. If the local authority refuses to conduct a same sex marriage, it will be acting as unlawfully as the B&B owner who will not allow a same sex couple to share the same room. If the local priest refuses to conduct a same sex service, his position will be protected by the exemption. It’s just that sooner or later it won’t be.
It doesn’t require years of legal training to realise that there may well be a problem with legislation that identifies a particular problem so serious that the law must be changed to address it – in this case discrimination against same sex couples who wish to marry – but which then seeks to allow some people to carry on doing what it has defined as unlawful (refusing to conduct same sex marriage services) and more so when the exempted people undertake the most easily recognised example of the marriage service – the "church" wedding.
In fact, that view is shared by people who have had years of legal training. Legal opinion obtained by a variety of groups recognises the possibility of challenge to any exemption – no-one has suggested that such a challenge could not be forthcoming – and the widely held view is that ultimately it is likely to succeed. Serving and former ministers from both coalition parties have also expressed this view. A former Ministry of Justice Minister regarded the prospect of maintaining the exemption as “problematic legally”!
So if the Chancellor supports gay marriage because he is in favour in principle, he should understand that he is supporting legislation that will sooner or later bind the Church of England and all other religious groups. If his support takes that into account, so be it. If it doesn’t, he may want to reflect.
The other possible reason for supporting the proposal is that doing so reflects well on the Conservative Party. This requires a note of caution, not least because decisions such as this are often best made as decisions of principle. But if it is about "electability", I should point out that it is not an issue in the marginal Yorkshire seat that I hold and does not appear to be an issue in the next-door marginal Yorkshire seat that we must win to form a government in 2015. Perhaps I should clarify when I say that it is not an issue. It is for all those who are not in favour and whose support they say we will lose. It’s just that no-one has contacted me complaining of injustice under the current arrangements.
Under the current arrangements, there is a difference between the rights available to same sex couples who enter a civil partnership and the rights of couples who marry. Legislation would remove that disparity. But that same legislation will sooner or later be applied to religious groups.
The question for individuals to judge is whether the current imbalance is so great that Parliament should legislate, notwithstanding that eventually such legislation will be enforced on the conscience of the church.