Comment: Equal marriage plans must include religion, writes Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper

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Writing for, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities Yvette Cooper says the government’s plans for marriage equality must go further if they are to respect religious freedom and tackle discrimination.

It’s not often Theresa May and I agree. But the Home Secretary is right to support same sex marriage. And I hope Parliament will be able to change the law this year.

But I want the Home Secretary to go further. Whilst churches and other places of worship should not be required to conduct same sex marriages, the Government is wrong to prevent those that want to from doing so. If ministers are really serious about supporting marriage, respecting religious freedom and tackling discrimination, they should follow the logic of their own arguments and make further changes too.

When civil partnerships were introduced by Labour seven years ago it was in the face of strong opposition and prejudice. Now more and more people are supporting change – not least because civil partnerships have been so celebrated. And attitudes have changed fast – often in response to political action and the bravery of LGBT campaigners over the years. 45 years ago, homosexuality was illegal and many parents felt shame if their child turned out to be gay. Section 28 still operated in schools until it was abolished in 2003. We should welcome the battles already won against discrimination and injustice, but keep making progress too.

So Parliament should take the next step and change the law on marriage. Couples who love each other and want to make a long-term commitment should be able to marry, regardless of their gender or sexuality.

For the state to deny gay couples making a long term commitment the recognition of marriage is out of date as well as unfair. We should celebrate, not discriminate when couples in love want to take that extra step.

It’s true that opposition from some church leaders has been strong. Just as it was against civil partnerships seven years ago. I respect their right to hold and express their views even though I wholeheartedly disagree with them. And I hope the debate will take place in a respectful way without some of the unjust, inflammatory language we have recently seen. Nor should this get polarised around religion, as there are many views within and between different faiths.

For a start I think same sex marriage strengthens rather than undermines the idea of marriage and long term commitment. The more we welcome and celebrate the long term loving commitments couples choose to make, the better for marriage and society.

And legislation around marriage and family commitment has rightly changed over the years to keep up with public attitudes – from the first introduction of civil marriage in the 1650s, to the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005, from allowing married women to own property in 1882 to outlawing rape within marriage in the 1990s. Such changes have been essential to keep marriage relevant and vital, and a strong part of society.

No one is proposing that churches should be obliged to hold same sex marriage. Freedom of religion is an important part of British society and religious marriages will continue – as they have always been – to be a matter for each church and denomination, and not for the Government.

But there is a serious contradiction here in the Government’s position.

The logic of respecting religious freedom and choice is that it should also be possible for those churches and synagogues that want to support gay marriage to be able to do so too.

Respect for religious freedom means that we should respect the choice of Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal and Reform Jews and others to support same sex marriage. And it should be possible for other religious groups to change their view over time too, as I hope and suspect many eventually will, without going back to Parliament for permission.

Yet, at the moment, Theresa May has ruled out allowing any church or synagogue to conduct a same sex marriage, even if they believe it is the right thing to do.

So whilst I agree with her that civil marriage should be reformed, on this particular issue, I believe she has the wrong approach and is still too reticent about change.

The journey doesn’t end with same sex marriage. We know there are other prejudices many who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender still face from homophobic bullying in school, to discrimination at work. And we need to challenge injustice wherever it lies.

But that includes delivering change on marriage now. Labour is launching our campaign to support same sex marriage. We are keen for it to be introduced in the Queen’s Speech and legislated for this year. And we will be pressing hard for the Government to go further to support churches and synagogues who want to celebrate same sex marriage too.

The debate has started. It shouldn’t be half hearted. In the interest of justice, fighting discrimination and supporting marriage it is time for change now.