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Tory leaders must beat the anti-gay fanatics on marriage

The Conservatives must stand up to the anti-marriage fanatics – for their own sake more than ours
Former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe is one of those who spoke at the rally against gay marriage.

With the British Conservative party’s annual conference has come another rush of objections to the government’s plans for same-sex marriage.

The shock announcement in support of marriage equality precisely a year ago is a central plank in UK Prime Minister’s David Cameron's attempted image-makeover, in which the memories of the Thatcher-era ‘nasty party’ are extinguished. However, with the welfare and safety of LGBT people most at risk from austerity measures, education and health policy, it is optimistic to think that the image of the party, or loyalty among gay voters can be improved by this single policy change.

Clearly, his decision to call on the communications skills of American campaigners in order to sell marriage equality to his party, shows that the opposition is more ferocious and organized than he bargained for. A cohort of backbenchers - by no means only the remnants of the Thatcher era - are vocally pitted against any change. Judging by MPs' likely voting intentions over three-to-one in favour) passing equal marriage legislation looks like fait accompli.

But it is important not to be complacent. Our political leaders must recognise what they are up against. If they are to defeat this well funded opposition, they must be uncompromising about their commitment to the principle and practice of equality. They must also understand and expose the level of extremism lurking under the surface of our opponents' anti-equality campaigns.

The campaign to extend marriage to gay couples has been lacking in principle from the start. If it is accepted that LGBT people deserve equal rights, responsibilities and recognition in society, then the debate on marriage closes itself.

The public consultation about extending marriage equality is in itself discriminatory, by declaring the status of gay relationships to be subject to public approval. And why is equal treatment of LGBT people a matter of conscience? A three-line whip vote would show the Conservatives are serious about protecting the rights of gay people from the interference of others. As it stands, the convoluted journey to legislation has given the network of well-funded, disciplined Christian lobbyists the time to organise.

The Coalition For Marriage (C4M), the evangelical and Catholic lobby machine, is unbowed, going all out to embarrass the government into U-turning. They have mobilised their overwhelmingly churchgoing supporters and used clever PR tactics to amplify their voice beyond what is most likely to be their true representation.

They have commissioned opinion polls, which critics claim are grossly exaggerating opposition to equality through questionnaire confirmation bias. Orchestrated campaigns have resulted in MPs being inundated with letters railing against 'redefinition'; and as always, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have been on hand to reproduce every opinion piece and press release almost verbatim, to enrage middle England.

Today in Birmingham, an estimated 1,000 Tory party conference delegates attended a C4M rally, with the aim of encouraging a grass-roots revolt over the issue. Heavyweights like George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Ann Widdecombe, among others, delivered keynote speeches denouncing the leadership as being 'out of touch'.

Why, after all this time, has so little been done to investigate or expose the extremist vision, ambitions and views of C4M's founder members? One wonders just what Nick Clegg's researchers were doing in September, when the deputy prime minister made a contrite apology for labelling the Coalition For Marriage supporters as 'bigots'. The only problem, is where does one start?

Coalition for Marriage Limited's registered address is that of the Christian Institute, a charity that has campaigned viciously against every piece of LGBT rights legislation since 1990. Coalition spokesmen include the institute's founder, Colin Hart, and PR man, Michael Judge.

Its stated aims are supposedly protecting the Christian religion in Britain; however some Christian Institute campaigns have been purely aimed at demonising LGBT people. Over the years its briefing documents – issued to support the age of consent at 21, to stop anti-discrimination legislation and prevent recognition of gay relationships – it has routinely used research criticized for being methodologically flawed, depicting gay people as diseased, predatory and more likely to be pedophiles.

It's most outrageous contravention of charity rules occurred in the run-up to the adoption bill, when it issued plastic cards, similar to organ donor cards, that read: ‘In the event of my death, I do not want my children to be adopted by homosexuals.’

For this, it received a mere slap on the wrist from the Charities Commission. Its MPs' votes web page indicates that it still, today, views every piece of rights legislation from the age of consent laws onwards, as immoral. Indeed, Mike Judge was on hand to appear on a fundamentalist American TV station to claim that allowing gay people to serve in the British Armed Forces destroyed discipline and morale, in the weeks before Don't Ask, Don't Tell was consigned to history.

Christian Concern is a media, lobbying and legal organisation, determined to seek success in the courts in order to create legal precedent. They organised demonstrations and church activism against equality legislation in 2007; a previous spokesperson, Mark Mullins, called for gay people to be banned from teaching in a Radio 5 Live interview. The group represented Lesley Pilkington, a 'gay cure' therapist.

CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), based near Westminster, has sponsored 'gay cure' events. Its Scottish division campaigned vigorously to deprive finding for youth groups providing vital support services. The Family Education Trust, run by Dr Trevor Stammers, has repeatedly linked homosexuality with pedophilia and called for the right to refuse servicing gay customers in any situation that might be construed as 'condoning a homosexual lifestyle' irrespective of religious beliefs.

Perhaps the greatest indignation can be reserved for Anglican Mainstream, whose director, Christopher Sugden, was supposed to be debating marriage equality with the Policy Exchange at a conference fringe event until the latter pulled out.

Its website contains regular screeds railing against the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, it labels attempts to decriminalise homosexuality in Africa as 'gay activism', promotes 'gay cure' therapy and has even promoted the crackpot theory that the Nazi party was an overwhelmingly gay network. Despite many media appearances on national TV and radio, Sugden has never been challenged on these and other news items on the AM website.

Given the masses of evidence of statements by these organisations, not to mention 'recommended links' on their websites to fundamentalist American groups that seek to recriminalize homosexuality, it is time the Coalition For Marriage stopped pretending it was just concerned about the 'protecting marriage'. Their vision is a society where gay people are marginalized in all areas of public life. They represent a tiny, reactionary minority of Christians - never mind the general population - who want to impose their version of morality on the rest of society.

Damian Thompson in the Daily Telegraph argues the government could save itself a lot of bother by dropping marriage equality because it won't improve their election chances. But if it weren't gay marriage, it would be any of a number of issues they have outlandish views on.

Beyond homosexuality, the hobby-horses of C4M-affiliated groups include teaching Creationist junk science to children, complete bans on human embryo research and abortion even in the case of rape, raising the heterosexual age of consent and abstinence-only sex education. Caving in, as well as emphasising that the Tories can never be trusted, would only encourage the UK religious right to seek further gains. That senior ministers should talk seriously about reducing the abortion limit to 12 weeks, against all expert opinion, gives an indication that the rot has already set in.

By reaffirming the party's commitment to marriage equality, the government has a chance to stop the fanatics in their tracks. Otherwise, if the rot continues, the party is in danger of facing a great many years back in the wilderness.

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