Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lynne Featherstone tells Church 'don't polarise gay marriage debate'

Lynne Featherstone directly challenges the role of the Church in the debate over homosexual weddings, saying it does not “own” marriage. 

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Miss Featherstone says the Government has a right to change the definition of marriage and pledges to challenge those who “want to leave tradition alone”.

Citing the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, who is a prominent opponent of the Coalition’s plans to allow same-sex couples to marry, she insists that how marriage is defined is up to “the people”.

In a direct address to the Christian opponents of the proposed changes, she says: “We understand how strongly some religious groups feel about the issue, which is why we are listening and we want to work with them.

“But there is a range of other views we need to listen to as well.
“I want to urge people not to polarise this debate. This is not a battle between gay rights and religious beliefs. This is about the underlying principles of family, society and personal freedoms.”

In her article, the Liberal Democrat minister insists the Coalition has a duty to push ahead with the changes.

“The fierce debate over the past few weeks has shown people feel very strongly about marriage,” she says. “Some believe the Government has no right to change it at all; they want to leave tradition alone. I want to challenge that view — it is the Government’s fundamental job to reflect society and to shape the future, not stay silent where it has the power to act and change things for the better.”

She warned that the Government would not back down on the plans, which she said would extend equal rights to gay and lesbian couples.

“[Marriage] is owned by neither the state nor the Church, as the former Archbishop Lord Carey rightly said. So it is owned by the people,” she said.

Critics of same-sex marriages, led by a coalition of Christian leaders, accused Miss Featherstone of “bulldozing ahead” with the plans without a democratic vote.

David Cameron has given his backing to extending the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, a change he hopes will be a central achievement of his premiership.

The Coalition begins a consultation next month on how “equal marriage” might be brought about. But opponents argue that the change would demand a fundamental redrawing of thousands of laws dating back around 800 years in which marriage is mentioned.

They fear that, despite Government reassurances, churches and other religious groups would be forced to marry same-sex couples against their beliefs.

This week a group of bishops, politicians and lawyers opposed to the changes started a campaign group, Coalition For Marriage, to lobby against the plans.

It has collected 36,000 signatures on a petition in four days. Speaking at the launch on Monday, Lord Carey said neither the Church nor the state had the “right” to redefine marriage beyond its traditional understanding as a union between a man and a woman.

Last night, Lord Carey said Miss Featherstone put an “unwarranted slant” on his words. He said: “When I said that not even the Church owns it I meant that the Church has no authority to change the definition of marriage as far as Christian thinking is concerned – there is a givenness to it. Lynne’s logic implies the will of the people is sovereign. So let’s suppose that in 10 years’ time it is proposed that, as people are living in multiples of four, we may call that marriage also.”

Colin Hart, the director of the campaign, said it was unclear why Miss Featherstone was “bulldozing ahead” with the plan. He said: “If she really cares about the people, why hasn’t she asked them what they think?”

In her article, Miss Featherstone reassures religious groups that they will not be forced to accept same-sex marriage in churches against their beliefs.

But James Bogle, the chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, said: “Unless the Government introduces an exception for religious groups, to say it does not affect religious communities is simply not true.

“No piece of legislation is in isolation — it will fit in to the framework of other legislation including the Equality Acts. What is the point of equality of it undermines other people’s freedoms? This is a direct attack on other people’s freedoms.”