Marriage is an institution that binds people together, underpins our society and has, throughout the centuries, allowed a public declaration of love and commitment. It is an institution of enormous value. Four hundred years ago Pascal said that "the heart has its reasons" and for many, marriage and 'walking down the aisle' is the final step, a way of making a public commitment in front of family, friends and the world in general.
But it's an institution that isn't open for everyone. As things currently stand it is restricted to uniting men and women. Same-sex couples, no matter however long-standing and loving their relationship may be, need not apply. We believe that is wrong and we'll be introducing legislation early in the New Year to change it - and I'm proud to be the minister that will do that.
Many people choose to-day to have a civil wedding and under our proposals there will no longer be any bar to same sex couples enjoying exactly the same rights as opposite sex couples. That is a huge change which will bring joy to many same sex couples who simply want to say: "I'm married and here is my husband/wife."
But some gay people want a wedding in church. I was talking about 'walking down the aisle' a moment ago. Let me be utterly clear: under our plans no religious organisation will ever be compelled to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies. The concern that we will is completely unfounded. Crucially, we have created a 'quadruple lock', putting into law clear and unambiguous protections. Yet, while it is right that we create those protections for those that don't want to conduct same-sex marriages, we must remember that there are religious organisations that do want to open their doors to gay couples. And for those that do, we must let them.
I think it's also important to talk about what this means for our established church, the Church of England. We had a number of detailed discussions with the Church of England as we drew up our proposals and will continue to speak to them in the coming weeks. The point to remember is that all religious organisations would be able to opt-in and conduct same sex marriages, if they so choose, including the Church of England. As the established church, the Church of England, has a duty in law to marry any couple living in the local parish, regardless of their religious affiliation. The same is true of the Church in Wales. However, the Church of England's has its own law, Canon Law, which is made by its own governing body, the Synod. That law explicitly defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
We have been very clear that we will protect religious organisations that do want to conduct same sex marriage and as things stand that includes the Church of England. Therefore, we have to provide a specific legal protection for the Church of England to ensure that its 'duty to marry' applies only to opposite-sex couples. If we didn't do this the Church could have been vulnerable to legal challenge, and we have been clear that would be unacceptable.
These protections don't mean that the Church of England will never be able to conduct same sex marriages, far from it. If they change their minds at a later date, and change their teaching, doctrine and Canon Law then that is up to them.
The key to these proposals is balance - between protecting those organisations that don't want to while allowing those that do. Our protections put beyond doubt that religious institutions can be legally challenged if they chose not to conduct same sex marriages. They mean that neither a future government nor a European Court ruling can subvert our intentions without the most fundamental of constitutional changes.
People have argued that same sex marriage is not an issue that should be addressed now, that the government has more pressing concerns, such as the economy. However I believe that we can't put issues of fairness and freedom on a backburner, that is not what we as a government or I as an individual am about.
Others have said that there is no need for same-sex marriage as civil partnerships address this inequality. But civil partnerships are not the same as civil marriages. Although both carry many of the same legal benefits there are important differences. We have a different understanding and perceptions of what it is to be married and the responsibilities that brings. Civil partnerships are not thought of in the same way. The latter just requires a register to be signed, the former - vows exchanged. Marriage is a public declaration, a cause for celebration.
Marriage has had a history of change and reform and that history continues with these proposals. Before too long all couples will have the right to marry. Marriage is the bedrock of our society. We are opening it up because being gay is not a good enough reason for the State to exclude people from it.
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