By Paul Goodman
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Lynne Featherstone's Daily Telegraph article this morning – and Lord Carey's response to it in the accompanying report – help to explain why the Government is winning the debate about gay marriage. The former Archbishop of Canterbury has previously said that "the honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way".
Featherstone's response is to agree that marriage is a social institution, and add correctly that if society creates an institution it follows that society can change it. Or, as she puts it in an ugly, NewLabourish way: marriage is "owned by the people". I agree with the Coalition for Marriage (c4m) that "throughout history and in virtually all human societies marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman" – and that it is unwise for the state to tamper with it.
However, the polls suggest that society itself does not – that most voters support gay marriage and that the majority for it is likely to rise. The unrebuttable fact is that abstract arguments about custom, tradition and precedent cut little ice with the modern electorate. The opponents of gay marriage will thus have to find a more concrete case if they are to thwart Featherstone – and David Cameron – and ultimately prevent a gay marriage bill from passing through Parliament.
What kind of argument might work? The Government insists that churches won't be forced to conduct gay marriages – and, to date, the claim that Ministers might be wrong on this point has produced little evidence and gained little headway. C4m says that "people's careers could be harmed, couples seeking to adopt or foster could be excluded". But if those people are religious believers, as is likely, they will have the courts at their disposal.
A crucifix-wearing nurse and clerk, plus a councellor sacked for refusing to provide sexual therapy for gay couples, have taken their cases to the European Court of Human Rights: the great Heath Robinson human rights contraption is at the disposal of traditionalist Christian campaigners as much as gay rights activists. It might be that redefining marriage would mean consuming Parliament's time in the task of amending centuries-worth of legislation.
That case might be deployed to effect during the committee stage of a bill. But opponents of gay marriage have not yet found one that will hold sway at second reading. Nor have they yet presented polling evidence – if it exists, which is doubtful – suggesting that opponents of gay marriage are concentrated in marginal seats. Nor has the Roman Catholic Church yet devoted the energy to attacking the Government's plans that it deploys in defending its own schools.
Nor is the Church of England likely to oppose the measure strongly (and some Anglican priests are, in any event, pro gay marriage). Nor are the imams likely to stir. Amidst fervent enthusiasm from one quarter and frantic opposition from another, a gay marriage bill is set to pass – as a majority of voters wonder quietly what the fuss is all about. As matters stand, opponents of gay marriage have a cause – but not an argument that will make most voters take a second look at the issue.