Two Conservative MPs are pushing for the government to consider separating the civil functions of marriage from the religious as part of the same sex marriage bill, I understand.
David Burrowes and Tim Loughton, who both voted against the legislation at second reading, have tabled an amendment to its first clause designed to spark a debate about whether Britain should have a system similar to France or South Africa, where the state controls the legal registration of marriages, but any wedding ceremony is down to religious institutions and venues (Hugo Rifkind extolled the benefits of this system earlier this year in The Spectator, and Matthew Parris similarly outlined the way South Africa managed to do it in his piece in December). The point is that this would allow the government to legalise same-sex weddings and ensure equality before the law, but leave religious groups to do whatever it was that they believed to be right, without the slightly odd situation that currently exists of the state having to ban the Church from doing something, even if it’s something the Church currently doesn’t want to do.
The amendment simply adds the word ‘civil’ in front of the clause which reads ‘marriage of same sex couples is lawful’. At face value, this would take the Bill back to its original function, which was purely to legalise same-sex civil weddings, rather than those in religious institutions too. But Burrowes and Loughton want a much wider debate than this, and Burrowes says some ministers are sympathetic to their argument about the state interesting itself only with the legal functions of marriage, rather than the ‘in the sight of God’ bit. He tells me:
‘Colleagues from different sides of the argument are not content, and feel there is a need for a deeper consideration of the role of the state in same-sex unions and marriages and some colleagues are looking in envy at France and other countries where there is a civil model of unions. We need the government to explain why they are in this journey and whether they should move that to the logical conclusion.’
Burrowes and other Tory MPs I’ve spoken to who are sympathetic to this idea accept that inevitably this will involve a deeper consideration of the relationship between the church and the state, although the church has made the same warnings about the Bill as it stands anyway. Their amendment is also highly unlikely to be accepted by the committee scrutinising the Bill line by line: the aim is to open it up for debate, and to help those peers in the Upper Chamber who are interested in the idea of civil union to start preparing.