Yesterday, 29 January, Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con) was given leave by the Commons under the Ten-minute Rule to bring in a Bill “to amend the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 to include a person’s conscientious beliefs about the definition of marriage; and for connected purposes”.
Citing the case of Lillian Ladele (see this blog pretty well passim) and the less well-publicised case of Adrian Smith (the housing manager at Trafford Housing Trust who was demoted for suggesting on his personal Facebook page that same-sex weddings might be “an equality too far”), Leigh’s concern was that those who opposed same-sex marriage might “be mistreated at work”.
He argued that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was to be subjected to inadequate parliamentary scrutiny even though it raised what he regarded as “… profound ethical, moral and … constitutional matters that affect the Church of England [and] … matters of conscience”. He also cited an Opinion by Aidan O’Neill QC – summarised here – to the effect that, in Leigh’s words,
“NHS and Army chaplains may argue their case for traditional marriage in church on a Sunday, but could find themselves in trouble for articulating the same views in their workplace on Monday”.
He was also concerned about the possible effects on teachers, who even in RE lessons would have to teach in “a balanced way.” The Education Act 1996 requires schools to teach about the nature of marriage; so on that basis, he contended, if marriage were redefined teachers would be required to teach about the nature of same-sex marriage: “Teachers who decline will find themselves in the firing line in the same way as Lillian Ladele”.
His proposed bill was not a blocking measure to stop same-sex marriage; it would simply insert in the Equality Act 2010 protection for a person’s conscientious views on the definition of marriage:
“It would protect those who hold the traditional view that marriage is between a man and a woman, just as it would protect those who hold a contrary view. People’s right to belief and conscientious right to freedom of expression must be protected. That does not mean that those conscientious views override all other considerations, but simply that conscientious beliefs about the definition of marriage are a protected characteristic that must be taken account of”.
Opposing the motion, Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op) – a member of the Church in Wales – took issue on three principal areas.
First, the Equality Act 2010 already provided protections for persons of religion and belief on a principled equal footing with other protected characteristics, including those of sex and sexuality.
Secondly, by opening up debate afresh in a piecemeal way,
“… we could essentially be undoing the work of a great deal of parliamentary debate that took place when we considered where to set the boundaries on “protected characteristics’ and how to balance appropriately the rights of one protected group alongside or against those of another”.
Thirdly, he suspected that the motion was a veiled attempt to prejudge and resolve a problem that, in his view, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill did not create – nor was such a motion the best vehicle through which to pursue the views of this House on such important matters.
Edward Leigh was given leave to bring in his bill by 86 votes to 31 and it was set down for second reading on Friday 1 March. Its prospects of reaching the statute book are precisely zilch: but it’s all part of the continuing story and, on that account, worth a blog post – if only as a foretaste of battles to come.