In the run-up to Monday’s debate on amendments to the Marriage (Same Sex) Bill, Glasgow South MP Tom Harris has responded to constituents who have urged him to support various changes to the legislation:
Thank you for contacting me about the Marriage (Same Sex) Bill in advance of its returning to the floor of the House of Commons next week for its Report Stage and Third Reading.
I completely understand your objection to Labour’s decision to impose a whip during the votes on the Report Stage of the Bill proceedings. However, I can assure you that I will not be changing my vote on any issue as a result of my party imposing a whip. While it is true that Labour has imposed a whip on votes taking place on some amendments to the Bill, there will be a free vote on the Third Reading, when MPs will indicate their support or otherwise for the entire Bill.
I have now had an opportunity to look at the amendments to the Bill tabled by MPs in advance of next week’s debate.
I do not believe it is acceptable for anyone to cite their religious beliefs as grounds for excusing themselves from his or her public duties. Were this to be enshrined in law, what guarantees would we have that teachers would not refuse to teach the scientific facts about, for example, the age of the earth because it contradicts the literal interpretation of creation provided by the Book of Genesis?
When the relationship between an individual and God starts to impede on the quality of life of others, that is when the state has a duty to act to ensure that all citizens, irrespective of race, sex, sexuality, or political or religious belief, receives the same level of service expected by everyone else.
There is one particular phrase in these amendments to which I particularly object: that a conscientious objection (to facilitating a marriage between people of the same sex) “must be based on a sincerely-held religious or other belief”.
Perhaps the mover of the amendment will be able, on the day, to define what he means by “other belief”. But as this amendment stands, a public servant – ie, someone paid from your and my taxes to provide a service to the public – would be able to boycott a gay wedding if he believed gay marriage was wrong. While I have said publicly many times that opposition from the church to same-sex marriage should not be dismissed as homophobia, this amendment as it stands clearly allows someone who dislikes the very idea of homosexuality to withhold his services, provided he is sincere in his belief. No civilized society would tolerate such a change to this Bill and if it is moved in its current form, I will vote against it.
‘Redefinition of marriage’
It has been suggested that supporting the Marriage (Same Sex) Bill is to advocate an “attack” on existing marriages, and that existing marriages require “protection” after the Bill is enacted. Yet no-one has yet explained how this “attack” will manifest itself. Extending the right to marry to gay couples will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on my own marriage, which will require no ”protection” from the state after the Bill becomes an Act.
I have received a number of requests from constituents to support the amendment calling for the public to be consulted in a referendum before the Bill is enacted. These constituents claim that such a vote is necessary because same-sex marriage was not included in any party manifesto at the last election. I will not do so. Parliament is frequently and inevitably called upon to pass judgment on issues which were not explicitly flagged up in party manifestos. Same-sex marriage is an issue of fundamental human rights. It should not, therefore, be subject to a popularity contest.
Such a social reform is either worth pursuing on its own merits, irrespective of the support it carries among the public, or it is not. I’m prepared to be proved wrong on this, but I understand that the legalisation of homosexuality was similarly not included in any party’s manifesto at the 1966 election. This necessary reform was nonetheless, rightly, enacted in the subsequent parliament.
As it happens, the evidence from any number of polling organisations would suggest that opposition to same-sex marriage – in my constituency as elsewhere – is confined to a minority.
I accept my responsibility to represent my constituents in parliament; on an issue like this, however, it is simply impractical to vote according to the wishes of all 68,000 of them, particularly when less than a tenth of one per cent of them have been in touch to express a view. I am not Glasgow South’s delegate to the House of Commons; I am its representative. That means that where I make a decision with which a majority of my constituents disagree, I can be removed at the subsequent election. I understand fully the sincerity with which opponents of same-sex marriage hold to their views and am prepared to face the democratic consequences of their disappointment at the next general election.
TOM HARRIS MP
Further reading: A Christian perspective on same-sex marriage (article for the Christian Socialist Movement)