By Paul Goodman
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Before marriage was the handfast – a public declaration of commitment by a couple. (There is a charming portrayal of one in As You Like It.) First absorbed by the Church and later abandoned by the state, its memory is a reminder that marriage is at heart not a government-licensed arrangement, but a social institution. In that context, there is an attractive conservative case for same-sex marriage, since institutions, by their very nature, evolve. Just as Shakespeare's plays evolved from the theatre that preceded them, the argument runs, so marriage can evolve from that of a man to a woman. The cross-dressing and role-playing in Shakespeare's play can acquire a new dimension. Orlando can marry Touchstone, and Rosalind be wed to Celia.
If this was all there was to same-sex marriage, we should all be "intensely relaxed" about it, as the saying goes. I found some of the contentions about marriage put forward by the Catholic Church, when I first heard them put from the pulpit, unpersuasive (and have not changed my mind since). But the current debate is not about custom, but law: the same-sex marriage bill is to have its second reading tomorrow. Its contents have already exploded one of the main arguments made by its supporters – namely, that the bill is all about equality. After all, it proposes that adultery will not be a ground for divorce among same-sex couples. How can there will be equal marriage without equal divorce?
It will be countered that adultery couldn't be such a ground, because same-sex marriage can't be consummated. Unfortunately for the bill's supporters, this only leads to deeper water – demonstrating why, when biology pulls one way and equality the other, the latter tends to lose, at least when it comes to law-making. The equality slogan thus turns out, when handled, to run through one's fingers, like sand through a sieve. None the less, it has its uses. For it is a reminder that the bill touches not just upon law in general, but laws in particular – especially the Equality Act of 2010, which places a responsibility on public bodies to "tackle prejudice" and "promote understanding".
The consequences of what could happen when this bill meets that act are as long as a hangman's noose. A hospital could sack a chaplain for advancing the Christian view of marriage at a wedding. A school could fire a teacher for refusing to use a book illustrating same-sex marriage as a teaching aide. A child with Christian parents, who says that they believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, could be singled out in front of his classmates by being told that their view is homophobic. A local authority could dismiss a marriage registrar for holding the same opinion. A local authority could refuse to allow Christian couples who oppose same-sex marriage to foster children.
On and on the list of examples stretches. (I will say nothing of the problems that the bill poses for churches themselves.) "Could", of course, is not "will". But as a senior civil servant has admitted, Britain is not "in control" of the bill's consequences, and cases will "inevitably" go to Strasbourg. And why should the churches gaze into the crystal when they can read the book? Catholic Care has been told that it cannot turn away gay couples if it wants to keep its charitable status. Some other agencies "have since closed or cut their ties with the Church". This is a sign of the times. Not so long ago, the churches dominated the public square. Then they (rightly) lost that power, but were permitted to sell their goods there, so to speak.
Now, their activities are more restricted. Some would like them driven out altogether, regardless of the benefits that the goods – to follow the figure of speech – bring to customers. So if adoption agencies are to close, for example, and children thus to be deprived of a home, that's a sacrifice worth making on the altar of equality. A few would like to go further – into homes, where parents would doubtless be treated as those bewildered UKIP-supporting would-be foster parents were treated in Rotherham. But whether they get their way or not, the sky's the limit for the equalities industry and the courts – that modern successor of Eisenhower's military/industrial complex.
The latter have tended to grant religion, a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, less weight than sexual orientation. And that's without taking into account our old friend, the European Court of Human Rights. One doesn't have to be a Christian (let alone a good one) to believe that this change is for the worse, that religious freedom and social welfare walk in step together, and that the greatness of Britain was built on the rock of a Christian culture. So what does this Conservative-led Government think? Much ink and effort have been spent on seeking an answer. But, frankly, I am no longer all that interested in finding it, since the facts speak for themselves.
This bill was not in the Conservative Manifesto. It is not in the Coalition Agreement. It was not in the Queen's Speech. There has been no Green or White Paper. There is little public pressure for it. But it will none the less be "whacked" through the Commons – to borrow the ugly but efficient word deployed by Boris Johnson – on a whipped timetable. This is hard to reconcile with Government assurances of a free vote. Ministers' haste and focus contrasts with their lack of urgency over transferable tax allowances – which is in the Agreement – but is being pushed into the never-never. Why the rush for a bill which needs, as we have seen, rather a lot of mulling over?
Today and tomorrow, the usual ballet will be danced. Ministers will emerge to support the bill. Concessions will be dangled to lure the gullible and help those looking for a way out. MPs are being asked to "help" the Prime Minister when they vote. I usually regard such manoeuvrings with amusement or resignation. This time, I am angry. Number Ten should not be proposing this bill without a clear mandate. Most Conservative MPs agree: were many not bound to Cameron by ambition or loyalty (or both), only a small proportion of them would vote for the measure tomorrow. None the less, he has decided to press on with the bill in the wake of losing on boundaries. This is an enterprising approach to party management.
It is impossible to know whether he will scrape a majority of Tory MPs for the bill this evening. But for what it's worth, my advice to them – if quizzed by Downing Street about their intentions – is to reply: "You want this bill? Scrap the Equalities Act, quit the ECHR – and I'll look it again, thank you." However, the Equalities Act is here to stay and, since this is so, a Conservative-led Government should not be taking such risks with religious freedom. A protest is in order. I am cutting the money I give to the party this year. A pathetic gesture, no doubt. I hope and believe it will be a one-off but, like other party members taking the same course, I cannot be sure. Downing Street has set these events in motion, but they have their own momentum.