The campaign for equal marriage has arguably been as much a fight against religious privilege and the grip of the churches on our democracy, as it has been about equality. It has been illuminating to see how wholly opposed the heterosexual male leaders of the biggest religions in this country have been to the principle of marriage equality.
Not content with the Tory-led Government bending over backwards to accommodate their demands for wide exemptions from the proposed new law on equal marriage, the main religions have lobbied hard against any reform at all. They have been determined to deny same-sex couples any access to marriage, even – outrageously – to civil, secular marriage. The strength of the diverse coalition of people and organisations standing up for equal rights for LGBT people in the face of those powerful opponents has been remarkable and wonderful to be part of.
Humanist groups have long campaigned for equality in marriage law and see the current reforms as overdue but very welcome. However, we want to see more reform to create real equality – and that would mean taking the opportunity now to legalise humanist marriage in England and Wales.
In its powerful support for equal marriage, Labour has quite rightly put the rights of same-sex couples as equal citizens at the heart of its arguments for reform of the marriage law. Yet even when Parliament passes the Bill, left unamended the marriage law will remain unequal and focused on religious rights. In effect, a double discrimination will be created for those with no religion, as no non-religious couple, gay or straight, will be able legally to marry in accordance with their beliefs as religious couples will.
We only need to look north across the border to see a far more equitable system. In Scotland humanist marriages have had legal status since 2005, and following a rocketing in demand for the non-religious ceremonies they are now more popular than Roman Catholic marriages. When the Scots pass their legislation to allow same-sex marriage, that will mean that both same-sex and opposite-sex couples will have the choice of a religious, humanist or civil marriage.
There are some moves to tackle the inequality between Scotland, and England and Wales. In fact, an amendment with Labour and Liberal Democrat sponsors has been tabled to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill to be considered by the Bill Committee in the next week, which would give humanist marriage legal status in England and Wales. In the other House, Labour Peer Lord Harrison awaits the Second Reading of his Private Members Bill to debate the same issue. We expect support from the Party for both those measures – in the last parliamentary session 43 Labour MPs signed an Early Day Motion in support of legal humanist marriage, and the issue has had support when it has been debated before in the Lords.
However, to put real pressure on the Government to challenge the status quo, to tackle the religious privilege inherent in the marriage law, to help to future-proof against the potential for double discrimination for non-religious couples, and to fight for real equality, One Nation Labour needs officially to make supporting legal change for humanist marriage part of its policy for progressive change.
Naomi Phillips is Chair of Labour Humanists