“Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a committee member of Raloo Presbyterian Church. I do so because I believe that same-sex marriage legislation could have implications for many Churches throughout Northern Ireland.
Marriage is a recognised institution where a religious or civic commitment is voluntarily given between a man and a woman to share their lives and property. A stable household and positive male and female role models are recognised as important in a child’s development. I and many others have very strong views on this matter. The Ulster Unionist Party has recognised this issue as one of conscience, so all members are entitled to vote according to their conscience.
The Civil Partnership Act 2004 legalised same-sex or civil partnerships in Northern Ireland. However, recently, the Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, stated:
“Same-sex couples now receive access to equivalent legal rights”.
She then added:
“bar the ability to be able to be married and to say that they are married.”
The Assembly Research and Information Service paper states:
“Civil partners have the same rights and responsibilities as married couples in many areas including tax, social security, inheritance and workplace benefits.”
However, the implications of introducing same-sex marriage are much more significant than merely changing the symbolic description of marriage. In its briefing paper, the Coalition for Marriage highlights that the word “marriage” appears some 3,000 times in UK legislation and that associated words such as “husband”, “wife”, “father” and “mother” also appear several thousand times. It points out that it is not possible to change the meaning of marriage without far-reaching consequences.
I believe that the motion is flawed. I also believe that it will not be possible to deliver same-sex marriage and to guarantee the protection of religious rights. Indeed, I believe that it will endanger civil and religious rights.
Some Members suggest that faith groups should not be concerned about the proposals to introduce same-sex marriage, as protections will be built in for those groups. However, I note that, in the consultation paper for England and Wales, the advice is that:
“no Church of England minister should face a successful legal challenge for refusing to conduct a same-sex religious marriage.”
There is not much certainty in that statement.
Aside from one’s moral viewpoint on the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage, I believe that the key issue is the unintended consequences for religious liberty. Any decision to introduce same-sex marriage is likely to have implications for me, for my Church and, indeed, for every religious organisation in Northern Ireland, as well as for an individual’s fundamental freedom of religious expression. It is deeply disturbing that civil and religious liberties in the UK could be threatened by this proposed change.
Concerns about the proposed change to the definition of marriage have been expressed by the general board of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Church of Ireland General Synod, legal advisers to the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, a host of other Protestant reform Churches, the Muslim Council of Britain, and Lord Singh, who is head of the Network of Sikh Organisations. So, why the concern? At present, a European Court ruling based on the current definition of marriage and of civil partnerships indicates that human rights are met by the status quo. However, should the definition of marriage be changed, the protection of religious groups to restrict marriage to between a man and a woman is likely to be challenged. I note that Adam Wagner, of UK Human Rights Blog, states:
“It may be that once a state decides to implement gay marriage, the court will be less cautious in ruling on how exactly the rules are implemented.”
The Church of England has indicated that, even if a mutually acceptable legislative solution could be found, it cannot be assumed that such a solution would withstand subsequent challenge, whether in our domestic courts or in Strasbourg. Leading human rights lawyer Aidan O’Neill QC indicates that equality legislation could result in Church chaplains being dismissed from hospitals for expressing their religious views, teachers having to utilise “John lives with Dick and David”-type books, and a host of other things. You think it impossible that that would happen? Remember that Relate, the Roman Catholic adoption agency —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Bring your remarks to a close, please.
Mr Beggs: — closed its doors rather than breach its beliefs and allow same-sex couples to adopt.”
I oppose the creation of same-sex marriage and support the existing concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman.