On 15th July 2013, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, took part in the Third Reading debate on the Government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. The Bishop spoke in support of a group of amendments seeking to remove inequalities in relation to survivor benefits under occupational pension schemes and thanked the Minister and the Government for accommodating the needs of the Church of England and other faith traditions within the Bill. As the Third Reading is the final opportunity for debate in the legislative process, Baroness Stowell of Beeston noted the work of the Bishop of Leicester during the passage of the Bill.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I support this group of amendments. A review of the benefits accruing to all survivors under occupational pension schemes is both desirable and necessary. The principle of equity under the law for those whom the law holds to have the same status in relation to the deceased is a sound one. Hard-pressed pension schemes must be tempted to limit benefits, and the complexity of some schemes may hide inequity, so this principle is clear and just and I support it. Indeed, the Church of England pension scheme already treats surviving civil partners in precisely the same way as widows and widowers.
There is a wider reason for supporting these amendments. It is no secret that the majority of Christian churches and other world faiths do not believe that same-sex marriage accords with their understanding of marriage itself. However, many of us, including on these Benches, welcome the social and legal recognition of same-sex partnerships and believe that our society is a better and healthier one for such recognition. That is why I support this group of amendments. This point has sometimes been obscured in public commentary on what has been taking place here, but not in the debates in your Lordships’ House. The courtesy and clarity with which your Lordships have listened to each other represent our very best traditions, and I echo all that has already been said in this brief debate.
I, too, thank the Minister for her work and the Government for accommodating the needs of the Church of England and other faith traditions, and for wanting to do so. That has also been a characteristic of this House as the Bill has been debated. While the Bill is necessarily complex as a result of meeting many needs—and we are making it a bit more complex again—it will serve very well both its supporters and those who are still unconvinced about it, and that is a signal achievement.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston: …We have also made amendments on religious protections, in particular one that clarifies the word “compel” in Clause 2. Religious faiths, notably the Catholic Church and others who are neither the Church of England nor the Church in Wales, and who did not wish to opt in to marrying same-sex couples, wanted us to strengthen further the clause in the Bill that states that a person may not be compelled to conduct a marriage of a same-sex couple. This matter was also debated in the Commons and the movers of the amendment there were defeated by 321 votes to 163.
Even though the will of the Commons was clear on this point, the Government said that they remained open-minded and would continue to listen. We did so, and were persuaded to come forward with our own amendment on Report. The Bill is now clearer, and says:
“A person may not be compelled by any means (including by the enforcement of a contract or a statutory or other legal requirement)”…
The amendments to which I am referring concern religious protection. The point that was made during our debate on registrars was that they are public servants, carrying out a public function, and are therefore not in the same position as people of faith as to the requirements if they are conducting a marriage in their own church. They are employed to do a job as public servants.
Our debates have provided evidence to support something else I said at Second Reading. It is possible for us to allow in law something that not everyone agrees with, and to respect our differences of view. …. I note, too, what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said when he paid tribute to the way in which we have debated the Bill in your Lordships’ House.
…I thank noble Lords from all four quarters of this Chamber who played a pivotal role in the passage of the Bill, in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester…
Amendments accepted without a Division