Supporters of a plan to allow humanists to conduct weddings, for gay and straight couples, in England and Wales have pulled their proposal after a debate in parliament.
British Members of Parliament (MPs) spent several hours debating the amendment put forward to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill for England and Wales today (21 May) in the House of Commons.
But now they have pulled it awaiting more information from the government on how to overcome legal challenges their amendment may face.
Kate Green, Shadow Equalities Minister, putting forward the amendment said she wanted to ‘recognize the strong popular support for humanism’.
Her plan was prepared with help from the British Humanist Association (BHA).
Green said: ‘The proposal seeks to put right a longstanding injustice in a simple and uncontroversial way. Whereas Christians and most other believers when they marry have a choice, most non-religious people have no choice.
‘I think we have to take the evidence of the number of people who are coming forward asking for a humanist ceremony and the very strong popularity they enjoy with those participating in them and those attending them.
‘This proposition is something the house could actually feel joyful about.
‘There is plenty of evidence of public demand for change. It disadvantages no one. It costs the public purse close to zero. It removes an unnecessary injustice.’
But Attorney General, Dominic Grieve warned by just including humanists in the proposal, it may fall foul, as currently drafted, of the European Court of Human Rights.
He said: ‘My concern is by introducing this clause the consequence is to make the bill incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It identifies a group which is not a religious group, it gives it a special status and all sorts of other secular groups would claim under article 14 non-discrimination.’
He later said even a ‘tiddlywinks’ club could go on to demand to marry people if the legislation when ahead in the form Green proposed.
But Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat, was one of those who dismissed his argument, saying that Scotland is also signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, through the UK, and had been conducting humanist weddings since 2005.
Grieve responded: ‘Scottish law is undoubtedly different historically. In Scotland it is not just humanists who may be registered, it is pagans and all sorts of others. But in the context of this bill it undoubtedly creates a human rights problem.’
He said was ‘not suggesting in any way what is happening in Scotland is unlawful’, merely saying the amendment’s drafting caused a problem.
At present the British Humanist Association conducts 600 weddings a year south of the border, where the ceremonies are an add-on and not legally binding but 2,500 to 3,000 in Scotland where they contain a legal right.
Green believes that where humanist marriages do take place they make marriage more popular and common.
And Chrisian Liberal Democrat MP Mike Thornton argued: ‘As church goers, as a Christian, I was very lucky to have the ceremony that reflected my belief so it is vital humanists should have the opportunity to have a ceremony that reflects their belief.’
But Conservative Tony Baldry returned to the Attorney General’s argument and warned it could lead to a situation voters would find unacceptable.
He said: ‘In Scotland we have seen pagan weddings, spiritualist weddings and weddings celebrated by the White Eagle Lodge. I have had enough problems in my constituency with same-sex marriage.
‘And if I go back to the shires and tell them parliament is now about to endorse pagan marriage they will think we have lost the plot completely.’
He pointed out the Church of England objects to the plans and suggested that agreeing to them would delay the gay marriage bill.
But in general, the amendment attracted in principle support but people were worried about the way it was framed.
Kelvin Hopkins, British Humanist Association member, and Labour MP said: ‘Why something is so easy in Scotland, so difficult in England is beyond me.’
While another Labour MP, Iain McKenzie, said he had changed his mind on allowing gay marriage, having previously voted against it, because he felt their was enough protection now for faith groups in the bill.
He went on to say: ‘Respecting faith and beliefs is absolutely essential and must be extended to the humanist marriages.’
But Maria Miller, Women and Equalities Minister argued it would ‘manifestly unfair’ to go ahead with the plans as it would only allow humanists to conduct weddings, not other groups.
And she said: ‘Humanists can already marry but same-sex couples can’t and that is the unfairness this bill is trying to change.’
After being reassured by Miller that the government would provide more information to help come up with a workable plan that solved the legal problems, Green agreed to withdraw the amendment.
MPs are now going on to discuss transgender rights in the equal marriage bill.