A Free Vote on Marriage Equality is the Right Call

There has been much discussion recently as to whether the Parliamentary vote on marriage equality should be a "free" vote, or whipped. On grounds that the bill is likely to pass in any event, I am of the deeply held conviction that anti-gay bigots should be allowed to "vote with their consciences", and explain their behaviour at a later date to the electorate.

It says more about a party's commitment to equality if its MPs vote for marriage equality of their own accord, and not simply because party leadership has whipped them into professing a certain belief.

Those MPs who are likely to vote against gay marriage if left to a free vote are not likely to vote in its favour even if whipped. The matter is truly one of posturing. Does a party have to whip its MPs to vote in favour of gay marriage, in order to prove its general commitment to LGBT people? In light of the almost-certain passage of gay marriage regardless, my view is no.

Were the situation different and the prospect of equality to hang in the balance, I would be much more tempted to argue in favour of a whipped vote, but even then, I would have reservations. A coerced vote in favour of equality opens the door to challenge by opponents down the line who argue that the initial recognition of equality was not a truly democratic one to begin with.

Nobody chooses to be gay. Marriage equality is a matter of rights, not a moral issue... and I would agree. By extension most might think the issue should not, therefore, be subject to a free vote at all. This once, I propose we give it to the bigots. Let's allow opponents of equality to vote themselves into irrelevance and tar their records permanently, for future generations to see.

The leaders of all parties are right in announcing their intentions to allow their MPs to vote in accordance with their own beliefs.

Whipping the vote plays straight into the hands of those who oppose equality, handing them the "victim" card to (wrongly) play. Let us be clear, however: there is no need to whip the vote. Not now, not ever. The tide of opinion has changed. People support "gay marriage". Polls of the general public overwhelmingly say so much. The government's own consultation (targeted incessantly by opponents of equality) couldn't hide that fact, which in spite of heavy lobbying by religious elements, showed a majority supporting a change in the law to allow same-sex couples the right to marry.

In no way, shape or form are "religious freedoms" superior to any other kind of liberty. If anything, given that faith is a choice and sexuality is not, the rights of the latter ought take precedence. But marriage equality will pass regardless of whether the vote is whipped, and implementing a harsh whip would only divide political parties. As a gay atheist, I am not offended by a free vote.

The legislation as proposed promises more than most of us, I think, expected. Those of us who had expected Cameron to outright prevent ceremonies on religious premisses were pleased to see provisions made for most religious faiths to be able to offer their own - but the introduction of a "quadruple lock" to "safeguard" the Church of England and Church of Wales from conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies ignores the reality that many in their congregations, and even amongst their most senior leadership favour the moving on from a bygone era of homophobia and discrimination. Going forward, socially progressive MPs must seek to rectify this injustice by other means - and empower the Church of England and Wales' own General Synods with the right to opt out of this "protection" now, or at a future date, should they choose. Although I do not believe Anglican congregants ought to be prevented from marrying in churches at all, a proposal this measured that actually seeks to give power to the Church, certainly cannot be accused of imposing a restriction on people of faith.

There is no rationale beyond preserving a "tradition of discrimination" as to why two loving adults of the same sex should not be able to marry one another. The passage of "gay marriage" will not force single heterosexual individuals into getting "gay married". The passage of marriage equality will simply open up the institution to all consenting adults - a change long overdue. Marriage is a legal and social institution of great importance; and excluding committed loving adults of any kind from part-taking in this weakens it, fostering only the belief that discriminating on the grounds of orientation is acceptable.

Opening up marriage for same-sex couples serves to enhance the religious liberties of groups who do wish to offer the ceremony to committed members of their congregation. As David Cameron has argued, rather than weaken the institution of marriage or religion itself, by making marriage fit for the modern era, the institution is strengthened. By opening marriage up to more loving couples, the stable family structure upon which Britain was built may be reinforced.

Perhaps reintroducing a sense of equality and fairness to marriage can revitalise a dying practice, increasingly spurned by straight couples... and just maybe equality can save the institution of marriage from being consigned to complete irrelevance.