The new law will have far-reaching consequences for schools, hospitals, foster carers and public buildings – and that’s just the start
Nick Clegg has, it seems, become embroiled in a row over gay marriage, after comments emerged by mistake in the draft version of a speech in which he originally intended to describe as “bigots” all those who oppose the proposed legislation to redefine the nature of marriage. The Deputy Prime Minister was expected to launch an attack on those fighting the policy – which includes quite a few Tory MPs – in a speech at a reception in London. But the wording of initial extracts released to the media was suddenly changed, and Clegg later insisted he never intended to use such language since it was “not the kind of word” he would ever use. Well, not in public, anyway.
What the BBC report describes as “sources close to Mr Clegg” (ie Clegg himself) said the use of the word “bigot” was “a mistake”, and that the “early draft” of his speech should not have been released to the press. He later addressed the issue at the event in central London, attended by celebrity campaigners and religious figures who back legalising gay marriage. “I am a little bit surprised,” he said, “to see cameras assembled outside the gates, for the slightly obscure, surprising reason that they expect me to use a word about opponents of gay marriage that I had no intention of using, would never use”. While he “stridently disagreed” with those opposing the legalisation of gay marriage, Mr Clegg said he would “never seek to engage in debate in insulting terms”. The real point, of course, is that though he wouldn’t use that particular B word — (which has become politically taboo since it got Gordon Brown into such trouble when he used it to describe someone who simply reflected a widespread anxiety over immigration) – it is pretty clear that, whether or not he physically uttered the word in public, it’s what he thinks, and probably says, in private.
“Bigots” didn’t get into his first draft by not reflecting what he actually believes. One difference between a first draft and a second draft is that what you, finally, actually say has ironed out anything that might get you into trouble. But what he did say is worth repeating: “I stridently disagree,” he said in his actual speech, with those opposing the legalisation of gay marriage. That means he thinks they are bigots. He would “never seek to engage in debate in insulting terms” because he knows it’s politically risky. But the legislation that he and Cameron are cooking up will be constructed on the assumption that those opposed are indeed bigots, and that once the legislation is on the statute book, they will have no more right meaningfully to oppose it than they would have to stir up racial hatred.
That, or something very like it, is certainly the conclusion that Aidan O’Neill QC — who is described in a Telegraph report as being an expert on religious freedom and human rights — appears to have come to. He thinks, for instance, that schools will be within their statutory rights to dismiss staff who “wilfully fail” (presumably that means “refuse”) to use stories or textbooks promoting same-sex marriage. He also concludes that parents who object to gay marriage being taught to their children will have no right to withdraw their child from lessons.
In a report commissioned by the Coalition for Marriage, who asked him to assess the likely knock-on legal consequences of any proposed gay marriage legislation, he writes that any decision to redefine marriage will have far-reaching consequences for schools, hospitals, foster carers and public buildings. The most serious impact is likely to be felt, he thinks, in the church where vicars and priests conducting religious marriage ceremonies could be taken to court for refusing to carry out a gay wedding.
They will, he says, be powerless to stop same-sex couples demanding the same weddings as heterosexuals under the European Convention on Human Rights. Churches would be in a stronger legal position if they were to stop conducting weddings altogether: “Churches might indeed better protect themselves against the possibility of any such litigation by deciding not to provide marriage services at all, since there could be no complaint then of discrimination in their provision of services as between same-sex and opposite-sex couples.”
They obviously can’t do that. But how valid are these alarming conclusions? Isn’t he just telling the Coalition for Marriage what it wants to hear? Well, as I wrote here in June, Mr Cameron, despite what he is telling Parliament has, it seems been telling his constituents in Witney that “religious marriage” will inevitably be affected by his proposed legislation. Inevitably? Well, according to Neil Addison, a specialist in discrimination law, “once same-sex marriage has been legalised then the partners to such a marriage are entitled to exactly the same rights as partners in a heterosexual marriage. This means that if same-sex marriage is legalised in the UK it will be illegal for the Government to prevent such marriages happening in religious premises.”
“Inevitably” – that’s the word the Prime Minister has been using to his constituents – “inevitably” religious marriage will be affected: in other words, whatever he tells Parliament about his proposed legislation affecting only civil marriage, he knows it isn’t true.
As for the conclusion of Aidan O’Neill QC, that schools will be within their statutory rights to dismiss staff who refuse to use stories or textbooks promoting same-sex marriage and that parents who object to gay marriage being taught to their children will have no right to withdraw their children from lessons, does that sound at all unlikely to you, given the cases of the Strasbourg four, which I wrote about last week, and which were considered by the ECJ last Tuesday?
Not at all, surely: what’s unlikely about it? After all, our political masters think that such people are just bigots. Why should they have any rights to exercise their bigotry? That’s why the legislation will effectively remove those rights. And that’s the country, these are the times, in which we are living now.