THE BLOG

Why Tim Farron's Record on Gay Marriage Matters

15/07/2015 09:01 | Updated 14 July 2016

The euphoria from the United States Supreme Court's recent decision to legalise same-sex marriage has not reached all parts of the nation. In ultra-conservative Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement declaring that "the government cannot force [registrars] to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies over their religious objections." Most have rightfully ignored him. But in one sleepy town an hour outside Dallas, County Clerk Katy Lang took advantage of her supposed 'right', refusing to grant a licence to Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton, both ranchers, who have been together for 27 years. She declared that she was "instilling [her] religious liberty in this office." One quick federal lawsuit later and the ageing cowboys are now happily married - with Lang potentially facing a large legal bill. Other 'rebel' counties across the South also seem to be backing down - as whatever the political grandstanders might assert, the idea that public employees can refuse to do their job because of their discriminatory beliefs would appear to be wholly unconstitutional.

Brits love to see the American South as a culturally backward land of heavily armed fundamentalists. But we must not forget that the region is still governed by the US Constitution, with its protection against discriminatory laws and its clear separation of church and state. As a nation where Parliament is supreme, however, we have no such backstop. The consequences of our politicians getting it wrong can be so much more severe.

That's why it's so important to remember that in 2013, during our own equal marriage debate, Conservative backbenchers, supported by Tim Farron, put forward amendments to give registrars exactly the same right of refusal that Texas was trying to assert. Had it not been for the opposition of most Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs, this would have been written into law.

Their plans, branded as 'protection of religious minorities', would have allowed public employees to refuse to certify a sex-same marriage based on any 'sincerely held belief'. Perversely, a 'sincerely' homophobic atheist could refuse to conduct a gay wedding - while an observant Jewish registrar tasked with marrying a Jewish woman and Christian man, a possible violation of their sincerely held faith, would have no such right.

It was also proposed to create special protections under the Equality Act for those who define marriage as being 'between a man and a woman.' This might mean, for instance, that a school would find it more difficult to rein in a teacher instructing pupils that, irrespective of the law of the land, marriage was only ever 'truly' a heterosexual institution.

These amendments, thankfully, failed - and on their defeat, Tim Farron did not vote for the bill in its final form, abstaining on the Third Reading. This is not my version of events, but a matter of public record. Direct mail put out by Mr Farron's campaign, claiming he "voted in favour of same sex marriage", is therefore worthy of a raised eyebrow.

Does any of this matter to the ongoing Liberal Democrat leadership race? Possibly not - and even if so, some see other good reasons to vote for Tim Farron. But you don't know until you ask - and that is why I drafted questions on the importance of his record on abortion and same-sex marriage to be included in a poll of Liberal Democrat members. In so doing, I have been variously decried as 'negative', 'muck-raking', engaging in 'dirty tricks', 'push polling', and worse.

But asking people to assess these questions is not only legitimate; it is essential if the election is to provide relevant scrutiny of potential leaders. As the excellent Dr Mark Pack revealed in a members' poll this week, Mr Farron's record on gay marriage and abortion is "an issue of concern to a significant proportion of respondents." People deserve to have the issues they care about discussed before they vote - not after. Scrutiny of our leaders must include understanding both the good and the bad; and if raising the latter constitutes 'negative campaigning', then any democrat should embrace it.

For his own part, when challenged on this record, including a 2007 vote to allow businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, Mr Farron has skillfully deployed his Christianity to avoid that scrutiny. He told Victoria Derbyshire that I, as one of those pollsters posing these tricky questions, was in reality asking if it was "compatible for someone to lead a Liberal party and to be a Christian."

For the record, I was not - the poll asked about the candidates' public statements and votes on key social issues. But I give a grudging respect to the truly negative campaign tactics: deflecting the argument and presenting those challenging discrimination as the discriminators.

But while we're at it, the compatibility between Christianity and Liberal leadership is uncontestable (and for that matter, uncontested). Mr Farron is quick to cloak himself in Charles Kennedy's legacy to 'prove' his point that some of our greatest leaders were driven by a deep faith. I agree with Mr Farron on this point - the comparison between the two men is actually important. If being challenged on same-sex marriage is an attack on Mr Farron's faith, why then did the avowedly Christian Charles Kennedy go through the opposite division lobbies on each of Mr Farron's discriminatory amendments? Why did Mr Kennedy vote for the final version of the bill, while Mr Farron did not?

This is not a question of faith. This is a question of Mr Farron's willingness to legitimise and entrench discrimination in law; to give people special opt-outs to act on their homophobia.

I hold my hands up: I care about this. Too many young gay people grow up feeling inadequate and abnormal, contributing to tragically high rates of depression, self-harm and suicide. The first boy I dated, who I took to my school leavers' ball, was one. Bullied and teased for being gay since perhaps even before he knew what it meant, he suffered from terrible depression. Some years after we parted, while at university, he ended his life.

The core principle of liberalism is that everyone is of equal moral worth. As liberals, we exist to tear down barriers that deny people that worth. Any action by the state to legitimise the idea that gay people are somehow less valuable, less moral or less deserving of equal protection under the law should be condemned - not promoted.

As the frontrunner for the Liberal Democrat leadership, Tim Farron now presents himself as a changed man. He says he now regrets abstaining on equal marriage, despite not distancing himself from his amendments. He's changed his mind too on his opposition to the Equality Act's ban on discrimination in the provision of goods and services - and recently was forced to apologise to Peter Tatchell for making the bizarre claim that Mr Tatchell shared his position. On abortion, despite Mr Farron saying he unequivocally believes it to be "wrong at any time" and calling for tighter restrictions, then voting for such restrictions against scientific advice, he now says the law should no longer be changed.

But it is not enough to repent of the past when it becomes convenient to do so. The importance of a politician's record is fundamental to the democratic process. We need to understand the underlying values of each candidate, as it is these values that will later guide them in unforeseen events. It is therefore our duty not to sweep a candidate's record under the carpet or to attack those who scrutinise it. Rather, we must actively seek to understand that record, question it and decide what it means for our future.

Mark Gettleson was a Liberal Democrat councillor in Southwark 2010-14, Campaigns Manager to Simon Hughes 2008-10 and Chair of Liberal Youth 2006-08