The depth of Conservative divisions over gay marriage are to be laid bare on Tuesday when David Cameron faces being deserted by more than half of his MPs ahead of a commons vote on the issue of gay marriage.
Divisions in the party have emerged over whether the Same Sex Marriage Bill, as it stands, is a necessary move towards equality.
It has been argued by MPs - including Conservative David Burrowes - that "redefining marriage" would infringe on the religious public's rights and alter traditional marriage, which Burrowes says is a "vital heterosexual institution".
Other MPs, including another Tory MP, Damian Collins, support the Same Sex Marriage Bill, arguing it is "an attempt to strengthen equality in British society".
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Is gay marriage a necessary move towards equality?
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Who makes the better argument?
I will be supporting the Same Sex Marriage Bill because I believe in a society where people have freedom of religious expression, but also one where outside of religion people are equal in the eyes of the law. But as an MP of Roman Catholic faith, I have been drawn to considering over the last few weeks, what Thomas More would have made of this issue.
Saint Thomas More, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor and a former speaker of the House of Commons is famous for the moral stand he took against his King, even though it cost him his life. It was learning about his example at school which prompted me to choose him as my Confirmation Saint. Thomas More is particularly remembered because he could not in conscience swear an oath recognising the Succession to the Crown Act 1533 which had the effect of annulling one of Henry VIII's marriages and therefore changing the royal succession. He could not swear the oath because, although he would abide by the Act's content, he could not in conscience say that he agreed with it. Parliament, he said, had the right to decide matters of marriage, and had the right to require all subjects, including Catholics, to abide by its laws, but it could not have the right to require Catholics in conscience to agree with them. As a result he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed.
Last month press reports of a letter signed by a large number of Catholic clergy who opposed the Same Sex Marriage Bill asserted that if it passed that this could be seen as a return to the persecution that Catholics experienced during the English Reformation, because they would be required to acknowledge equal rights to marriage, against the teaching of the Church. I'm not sure that Thomas More would agree with this, and nor for that matter do I.
The Same Sex Marriage Bill is not seeking to tell the different churches and religions what they should believe, or to restrict them practicing their beliefs as the do now. Churches will not be required to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies if they do not want to. The Catholic Church will remain free to teach that marriage is a sacrament of the Church, it is between a man and a woman, that its purpose is for the procreation of children, and that it is for life. Of course, sadly, many people who are married by the Church are not able to have children, and a great many marriages end in divorce. The law of the State in allowing divorced people to remarry is already against the teaching of the Church, and a form of marriage that the Church would not recognise or perform. So we already have a system of marriage by the churches and the state which are sometimes compatible, and other times not.
The Bill is an attempt to strengthen equality in our society, without compromising religious freedom. I believe that Thomas More would have understood this distinction, and regardless of how he would have voted (I would not seek to presume on a matter of conscience like this) I think he would have agreed that this was something that Parliament had the right to do.
Other countries around the world have already introduced equal marriage rights. What is particularly notable to me, is that about half of those countries - Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay - have overwhelmingly Catholic populations. They have been able to introduce this measure without affecting the rights and practises of the Church. In these countries, where an overwhelming proportion of the population are of the Catholic faith, there is a recognition that the state is not a theocracy, that the practises of different faiths must be respected, and that those who do not follow a faith have the same rights in law as those people who do.
Tuesday 5 February 2013 will be an historic day. It will be the first time in recent years that a 'free vote' bill is debated before a Queens Speech. The first time in living memory that an issue raising such fundamental matters of moral, legal and constitutional significance has been pushed through by a government without an electoral mandate and without the whole House's scrutiny. And it could be the first time a government has less than half of its MPs supporting a government bill.
If it passes the bill will of course be historic, making it lawful for same sex couples to marry. Supporters say colleagues should be on the right side of history in relation to gay rights. I see it differently like Stonewall's chief executive Ben Summerskill did in 2012, when he told me he feared gay marriage would just put us in our trenches and not advance gay rights. There will be MPs from all parties with me voting against the state's attempt to redefine marriage. They are united in supporting the equal value of men and women whatever their sexuality and affirming the distinctive value of marriage being between a man and a woman. They can tell their constituents in 2015 that they supported the social institution of marriage and supported the foundation of a free society.
Phillip Blond and Roger Scruton's paper on marriage published today by Respublica ('Marriage Union for the Future or Contract for the Present') comes in the nick of time to remind us why marriage needs defending not redefining and same sex unions need respecting.
Marriage is a vital heterosexual institution becuase it caters to the unique consequences of heterosexual union - children. It cannot simply be extended to others without this purpose being devalued or lost. For as Blond and Scruton point out what most threatens marriage is an account of marriage that just reduces it to the people involved - making marriage a simple contractual relationship that does not extend beyond the consenting parties themselves. Redefining marriage as more of a partnership than a conjugal relationship fundamentally changes the meaning of marriage and helps to erode its historic and crucial purpose.
Children and parenthood barely get mentioned by supporters of the bill despite the fact that this is the prevailing reason for most couples getting married. You could begin to think that marriage was all about the value of adulthood and not the value of parenthood. Of course same sex couples raise children in loving homes and not all marriages involve children. But over the centuries society and church have had a united view of the essential purpose of marriage, to provide a stable institution for the care of children. Now the state is trying to divide and rule the meaning of marriage.
Blond and Scruton's considered paper is a timely rebuttal to those who pigeonhole opponents of the bill. Tuesday will be the time for all MPs who believe marriage is our most progressive and conservative institution to stand up and be counted.
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Damian CollinsDavid Burrowes MPNeither argumenthas changed the most minds