As you will probably remember, whether because of what I wrote about it or more likely because of some of the bigotry and mud-slinging that characterised it in the press, the Scottish Government opened a public consultation on marriage equality late last year. The results of that consultation will be made available, we are told, in June.
The government in Westminster has now opened their own public consultation on the same topic, with a view to making changes to marriage law in England and Wales. You may have heard about it. I had finals and house moving and important sleeping to do, and then no proper Internet for a fortnight, and so, although I knew that it had started, it is only now that I’ve read the text of the consultation.
There are a number of differences between this and the one produced by the Scottish Government, partly because of the differences that already exist in marriage law on either side of the border. The most glaring difference to my mind is that the Westminster government have chosen to make a truly head-exploding amount of presumption regarding how religious people feel about same-sex partnerships. This is on page 9 of the consultation document or in the preamble to question 5, if you should wish to read it for yourself. I also find it frankly bizarre and not a little bit worrying that they have chosen a consultation on marriage equality as the place in which they state that, “no one should face successful legal action for hate speech or discrimination if they preach their belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.” I’ve said that I am in favour of religious freedom for everyone and have repeatedly pointed out that freedom of conscience for religious bodies is already built into existing marriage law (and would continue to exist under any changes to marriage law), and I stand by both of those things. And, in principle at least, because I am a good and free-speech believing liberal, I support the right of the Keith O’Briens and Philip Tartaglias of the world to tell their congregations and the free media that the God who I love considers me an abomination. However, to enshrine within marriage law a clause that says no one will ever be prosecuted for saying that marriage should only be between a man and a woman is a step that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I have no truck with a law that leaves no room for nuance, that fails to recognise that sometimes it is hate speech and sometimes it is violence, and that, the first time a defence lawyer cites it in court, will do everything to protect those who do cross those lines and will do it while claiming to have been written with the goal of building a fairer society. In the context of this consultation, homophobes and religious conservatives are not the ones who are trying to overcome centuries of disenfranchisement and it is disingenuous at best to frame it in a way that suggests that they are. Incidentally, this is a consultation that states right at the outset that it has no plans to make religious marriage available to same-sex couples, so…
In Scotland, marriage law is devolved and so the outcome of this consultation will have no bearing at all on any decisions that the Scottish Government may or may not make. However, a lot of you are in England and those of us in Scotland can still make our views known. The consultation closes on June 14th and responses can be made here on the Home Office website