The future of gay marriage in England and Wales will be debated in the House of Lords today and tomorrow.
As the Lords argue the merits of the bill over two days that will culminate in a crunch vote at around 5pm on Tuesday (4 June), bishops have been told to abstain from voting to avoid being singled out and blamed should the bill not pass.
The Telegraph reports bishops are being urged not to submit a vote for gay marriage, for fears that there could be a backlash against the church that may call into question bishops’ right to sit in the House of Lords.
One senior official said to The Telegraph: ‘What they are scared of is that this goes down by a few votes and then the bishops are seen as having swung the vote.’
Though a total of 26 bishops are allowed to sit with the Lords, senior officials have allegedly requested that a maximum of six be present for the debate today and tomorrow (3 and 4 June).
It is set to be a stormy debate with 80 peers due to speak. But it will give opponents and gay marriage supporters the chance to debate the broad principle of marriage equality.
Campaigners for marriage equality remain confident about the process but warn it will be historically tight.
Helen Grant, the justice and equalities minister, has said votes should be cast in favor of same-sex marriage because it’s the right thing to do, not because of Cameron’s promises to give tax breaks to all married couples in 2015.
‘This [same-sex marriage debate] is about stopping discrimination and allowing a very large and significant group of people to enter into an institution that most of us think is a very valuable one. That is really how I see it.’
Grant said same-sex couples shouldn’t accept tax breaks as a trade-off for legalized marriage, which is one option expected to be brought up in the two-days’ debate.
Senior officials in the Anglican Church, according to the Telegraph, have also told bishops the current bill, which includes a ‘lock’ that prevents religious leaders being forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies is the ‘best’ the church can hope for.
In addition to the Anglican Church’s strong opposition to the marriage equality bill, religious leaders from various UK faith groups have formed ‘unprecedented’ alliances to speak out against gay marriage.
A Church of England spokesman said: ‘The bishops in the House of Lords do not have a party whip, they do not vote according to a party line.
‘Each will vote according to their own conscience.’
Head of policy for Stonewall, the UK’s leading gay lobby group, Sam Dick said: ‘We expect a tough fight in the House of Lords and we’re working tirelessly to help the bill get through second reading.
‘By supporting this modest measure peers will demonstrate that they’re in touch with British public opinion in the 21st rather than the 19th century.’