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Lords debate calling gay marriage ‘unions’ and blessing ‘sheep’ over gay couples

Lords debate calling gay marriage ‘unions’ and blessing ‘sheep’ over gay couples

Britain’s House of Lords has been debating whether straight marriages should be renamed as ‘real’ or ‘traditional’ and if gay marriage should be called marriage at all.

Meanwhile the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has hinted the Church of England should give more recognition to gay and lesbian partnerships – asking why it is the Anglican Church would rather bless a ‘sheep’ or ‘tree’ than a same-sex couple.

The exchanges yesterday (19 June) went on late into the night as Britain’s upper chamber of parliament scrutinized the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill for England and Wales in detail.

Several peers argued the new law should differentiate between ‘gay’ and ‘traditional’ marriages. Some suggested the word ‘marriage’ shouldn’t be used for same-sex couples at all.

Alternatives included ‘unions’ and ‘espousals’ or allowing a differentiation and separate register for people who wanted ‘traditional’ marriage.

Historian, journalist and Conservative peer Lord Patrick Cormack said: ‘I ask friends in all parts of the House who are themselves gay to recognize there is a strong feeling in this country the relationship between a man and a woman is marriage and should remain marriage, and that we should look for some other definition beyond civil partnership for same-sex relationships.’

While Lord Robert Armstrong turned to nursery rhymes to suggest Prime Minister David Cameron may regret his insistence that same-sex couples deserved equal marriage recognition.

He said: ‘I should not of course think of casting the Prime Minister, with his many other qualities, as Humpty Dumpty but I am sure [those arguing the other side] will not have forgotten Humpty Dumpty’s fate. Sitting on his wall, he failed to assess the risk of falling off it and had a nasty accident.’

But others pointed out that gay and lesbian couples in Britain already have access to civil partnerships and the whole point of the bill is to give full marriage – not another compromise solution.

Lord Anthony Lester of Herne Hill, who was instrumental in introducing civil partnerships a decade ago, argued: ‘I think all noble lords in this chamber regard marriage as the crowning of our relationships.

‘As a man who has been married for 41 years, I certainly do, as do many gay people who are religious, or not religious but who regard marriage as the highest status they can aspire to.

‘Therefore if you call it something less, such as civil partnership or civil union, it has a lesser status – not just a different status but a lesser one.’

And independent member of the house Baroness Kathleen Richardson, said: ‘My Lords, it is my understanding that what same-sex couples are asking for is not permission from the state to enter into loving, committed, lifelong relationships but the recognition by the state the relationships they have entered into, or will enter into, are equally valid in bringing stability to society and in being a right and proper place for the upbringing of the children they take into their families.

‘Therefore, anything other than marriage, which we have all said is the bedrock of our society and should be the basis for the ongoing upbringing of children, will not do.’

While Baroness Fiona Shackleton pointed to a hole in the argument of those asking for ‘traditional marriage’ to be specially protected as they had defined it as a life-long commitment.

And she used her speech to throw back the nursery rhyme analogies of gay marriage equality opponents who had said marriage equality was a kind of ‘doublespeak’.

She said: ‘Marriage is clearly not for life. That is illustrated by the status of second marriages. Nobody questions the validity of the second marriage of a heterosexual couple, yet a homosexual marriage is not entitled even to a first chance.

‘What would Humpty Dumpty call a second marriage? Would he call it a “union” or a “second attempt”? It is fanciful to think that if marriage is for life a second marriage should be given status, when a homosexual marriage is not given a chance.’

Also speaking in the debate was Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, a gay marriage opponent who is one of the bishops with a seat in the House of Lords as a representatives of Britain’s official state religion – Anglicanism.

He spoke out against gay marriage but the most revealing moment was when he was challenged by Baroness Valerie Howarth who asked if the Church of England would bless gay couples if their ‘marriages’ were called something else.

Sentamu replied: ‘Decisions about liturgy and constitutions are not the privilege of bishops but of the General Synod of the Church of England. This matter will need to be discussed.’

But he went on to say: ‘Incidentally, I am one of those who has gone on record as saying that had civil partnerships been given enough space, the church would not have escaped the possibility of a conversation.

‘What do you do with people in same-sex relationships that are committed, loving and Christian? Would you rather bless a sheep and a tree, and not them?

‘Give me time, and one day I may come back and speak on this.’

The General Synod is sitting later this year and, under new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the way seems to be being cleared for more recognition of gay unions. However the church hierarchy remains resolutely opposed to marriage equality.

The Lords went on to discuss whether people who believed in ‘traditional’ marriage should have special protection to freely explain their views.

Baroness Julia Cumberlege said: ‘Harmony, broad-mindedness and tolerance are more likely to be achieved if both those who do and those who do not believe that same-sex marriages should be available feel that their beliefs are equally valued and protected.’

But others pointed out this freedom of speech was already protected under British and European law.

Meanwhile senior government lawyer, Lord Jim Wallace, said there shouldn’t be a special exemption from state marriage registrars who disagreed with same-sex nuptials.

He warned it would be very unfair if some were given an opt-out and then refused to help a same-sex couple who came to them.

‘The personal hurt that that could cause should not be underestimated,’ he said.

And he added: ‘As public officials, marriage registrars must perform their duties for all members of the public, without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or any other matter. They should not be able to pick and choose which members of the public they provide their services to.’

The committee stage of the bill in the Lords will continue on Wednesday.

The Lords have already indicated broad support for the bill and it has been passed by the elected House of Commons who can force it through the unelected upper chamber if necessary.