Maria Miller sought to assuage the fears of her backbench colleagues about the government’s plans for gay marriage today by announcing a ‘quadruple lock’ to prevent any religious leader being forced into conducting a same-sex wedding against their will. Her statement to the House of Commons was particularly focused on concerns about the effect on the Church of England, which has said it does not want to marry gay couples.
The quadruple lock consists of the following measures:
1. The legislation states that neither religious organisations as a whole nor individual ministers will be forced to hold same-sex weddings on their premises.
2. Miller will amend the Equalities Act so that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations who refuse to conduct gay marriages.
3. Religious organisations who do support gay marriage can opt-in, and then their individual ministers will also then need to opt-in before they can conduct the ceremonies.
4. The legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Church of England and Wales to marry same sex couple: Miller told the Commons that the CofE had already said that it did not want to carry out same-sex partnerships.
She later told one MP that case law had put it ‘beyond doubt’ that there would not be court action against a church.
Although Miller herself supports the legislation, and clearly believes that this quadruple lock will satisfy the test for MPs that introducing gay marriage will lead to a situation where a vicar is forced by a court to marry a gay couple, she took care as she answered questions from MPs not to criticise those who expressed their opposition. She told Stephen Gilbert, who criticised opponents for making a fuss about the proposals, that she understood opponents’ concerns, saying:
‘I understand the sentiments of my honourable friend’s comments. I do understand, however, what the fuss is about, because I think people do have deep-seated religious convictions, they have deep-seated beliefs, and I do think that we need to make sure that if we go forward successfully with these measures, that our respect is clear.’
She also told Chris Bryant, a former CofE vicar himself, that the Church could if it wished to change its position on gay marriage and that primary legislation could in the future enable the CofE to conduct same sex marriages if the position changed. She added that she expected he would continue to lobby his former employer on the matter.
It was interesting that the responses from MPs opposed to gay marriage largely centred on their implacable opposition to the whole idea, rather than their fears about the implications of the changes for vicars. As Nick Herbert praised Miller for her statement and told the Commons that the changes proposed commanded widespread support across the country, Peter Bone shouted ‘no, it doesn’t!’. Matthew Offord later repeated his polygamy argument, while Laurence Robertson said many people were ‘deeply offended’ by the proposals. In each instance, Miller sought to be respectful.
For many of the MPs who made hostile points in this afternoon’s debate, it is unlikely that they will change their mind and support the legislation as a result of the Secretary of State’s announcement. But there are others who are undecided and who were waiting for reassurances along the lines of the ‘quadruple lock’, who may well find it a great deal easier to make up their minds.