Same sex marriage bill opt-outs rejected by MPs

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Efforts to offer teachers and registrars legal protection if they do not want to teach about or conduct same-sex marriages have been blocked by MPs.

A series of new clauses to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill were put forward at report stage on 20 May 2013, in a bid to make exemptions for registrars and teachers who do not believe in same sex marriage.

Introducing the new clauses, Conservative MP David Burrowes claimed there was a "chill wind" blowing in the country for those who disagree with same-sex marriage and that registrars "will remember this not as a marriage bill but as an unfair dismissal bill".

He asked his colleagues to "stand with the greats of our political heritage to defend the whole breadth of society".

But Labour MP Stephen Doughty, who served on the public bill committee which examined the legislation at committee, said he felt it was "a permissive, protecting bill".

"I do draw the House's attention to the fact that opponents of the bill, those scrutinising it, did take up the vast majority of the time in the public bill committee raising their concerns - those were listened to. There was a deep degree of listening," Mr Doughty pointed out.

Conservative MP Nick Herbert urged: "In providing these protections for the exercise of conscience we do not do a great injustice and actually allow the language and the expression of language and attitudes that have actually caused a great deal of unhappiness."

Teaching or preaching?

Other Members suggested the bill as currently worded was too unclear.

Lib Dem Simon Hughes spoke of "some nervousness that protection is not sufficient" and said he was looking for "more than a little reassurance", before Labour MP Robert Flello expressed concern that "in reality the protection may be very narrow in scope".

Shadow Home Office minister Chris Bryant began his wind-up speech for Labour by saying: "We believe in equality under the law, a vital principle."

"Not much teaching should be preaching," Mr Bryant said, before adding: "Conscience is the most important thing that trumps everything else and if that's the case why would you want someone to merely adhere to a line and be indoctrinated?"

Replying for the government, Culture Minister Hugh Robertson stressed: "We have been listening extremely carefully to all the concerns that have been expressed."

Mr Robertson explained that under the terms of the bill, mechanisms were already in place to ensure "teaching in this area should always be balanced and sensitive".

But on the question of registrars, he told the House: "I do not believe it is appropriate or right to allow registrars to opt out of conducting same-sex marriages either permanently or on a transitional basis. Like it or not, they are public servants who should carry out the will of Parliament."

The new clause on teachers was then withdrawn. The new clause allowing registrars to opt out was put to a division and defeated by 340 votes to 150.

A new clause seeking to protect the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman under the Equality Act was rejected by 339 votes to 148.

In a third division, MPs voted against a new clause defining what it means to "compel" opponents of same-sex marriage to recognise it by 321 to 163.

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