London, Saturday (June 29th 2013): In two separate debates recently, Lord Singh of Wimbledon the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) gave a Sikh view, during the Committee stage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Please see text of speech below:
“My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 19, which is in my name and is part of this group of amendments. In many ways, what I will say will mirror some of the things said by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. The Equality Act 2010 is meant to protect against discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. However, anyone who has read about the cases that have come to court will know that it has not always, to date, protected people with strong religious beliefs about marriage.
It is not easy to stand up for your beliefs against the might of arrogant and sometimes ignorant authority. It is not easy to risk your career prospects and your family’s livelihood. I know—I have been there. Lack of clarity in the law adds to the difficulty. Those with traditional views bringing discrimination claims under the religion or belief strand, usually after being mistreated for a long time, have found that their beliefs on sexual ethics were not covered. Amendment 19 would put beyond doubt that belief in traditional marriage falls under the religion or belief strand. It would not guarantee that every claim brought to court would succeed but would simply confirm that the belief is capable of being protected under the Equality Act.
He added: “Millions of people in this country passionately believe that marriage is an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman and cannot be anything else. Some believe this for religious reasons and others for non-religious reasons. Thankfully, we live in a democracy, where people are not forced to behave as if they believe something just because the law asserts it. We should all obey the laws of the land but we should also have the freedom to express our views about the fairness of those laws, particularly where they refer to dramatic social change. When it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, there is a real risk that people will be coerced to go along with the redefinition of marriage because there is a lack of respect and tolerance for diverse views on the matter. Other noble Lords have referred to the rather unfortunate moment in January when a draft speech issued by the office of the Deputy Prime Minister referred to people who disagreed with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill as “bigots”. He sought to make amends for the statement by saying:
“My views on this issue are no secret, but I respect the fact that some people feel differently to me about marriage”. That was quite generous of him but it does not alter the fact that he refers to those who differed from him as bigots. The Deputy Prime Minister is not the only one to use such trenchant terms about those who oppose this legislation. Many of us have received similar abuse for defending traditional marriage. The Government say in their fact sheet on the Bill that they are committed to freedom of speech and that they, “have always been absolutely clear that being able to follow your faith openly is a vital freedom that we”— the Government—“will protect. Everyone is entitled to express their view about same-sex marriage, at work or elsewhere”.
That is a noble and good sentiment and one that we want carried into law and protected. Everyone should be entitled to hold and express their views about this important and sensitive issue without fear of punishment. We find strong support for traditional marriage among politicians of all stripes, lawyers, academics and workers from all walks of life in the private and public sectors. We find it among atheists and people of all religions, among heterosexuals and gay people. It would be sad if such opinions were muffled or silenced by a lack of clarity in the law. Not to respect and protect their ability to hold and express their beliefs about marriage would result in a tyrannical situation where there was only one acceptable view, with those with other views pushed out or mistreated. Public space must be left for those millions of people. There have already been many occasions when people who try to speak out publicly in support of traditional marriage suffer for it, even while the current law is still in place. We can be sure that unless measures are taken it will get worse if this Bill becomes law.
We should take steps to reverse the tide, here and now in this Bill. We should make sure that mainstream traditional views are properly respected and protected. Most ordinary people respect the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. This is hardly surprising. It is what the law of the land currently states, and has stated for centuries. It is the definition of marriage that predates both church and state. It is the definition of marriage in many of our different religions. It is the definition that dominates the globe. Of the 193 United Nations member states, only 14 recognise same-sex weddings. In the 35 American states which have put it to the popular vote in the past decade or so, 31 out of 35 voted to keep marriage as it is. Here in the UK polls vary between 60% support for same-sex marriage and 70% opposition to it, and they go up and down. This shows two things. First, in polling the answer depends on the questions asked. Secondly, we must agree that redefining marriage is controversial to say the least, with millions of people on either side of the issue.
Clarity in the law would help heal a clearly divided and fractured society. There is divided opinion in this House and divided opinion throughout the country. It is not a settled question; there is no consensus. Therefore, we must ensure that those whose beliefs about marriage no longer prevail are protected by the law. There is plenty of evidence of the need for explicit statutory protection. Run a quick search through Google and you will see astonishing name-calling and abuse directed at people who simply support the Marriage Act 1949.
Noble Lords might say that this is just name-calling, but history shows that name-calling often leads to violent and threatening behaviour, and worse. People who disdain those who support traditional marriage as tantamount to racists are more likely to think that they can take the moral high ground over them, and take action and do whatever they wish. They are in a position of power over such people.
We do not need to speculate; it is already happening. We heard today about the housing manager demoted by his public sector employer for describing same-sex marriage as “an equality too far”. We heard about the police chaplain who was dismissed from his voluntary post for a moderately expressed blog upholding orthodox Christian teaching on marriage. We heard about the Strathclyde police who argued that the Reverend Ross could hold his beliefs in private, but not in public. We should not be deterred from saying what we need to say in public. Strathclyde police responded to the publicity surrounding the case by saying that the Reverend Ross could not express his views in public. It is not right that we have to hide those views away.
During a second debate Lord Singh responded to Lord Garel-Jones who asserted “religions fall out of step with society” citing women’s rights over the last few hundred years and the Church of England position on women Bishops.
Lord Singh said “I apologise, but the noble Lord refers to religions—he has clarified the issue now—and gives the example of women. Women were given full equality in the Sikh religion from day one. It is not a question of marketing. Religions and value-based systems should not go for marketing. They are offering something, and that must not go with the tide. That is absurd.”
The Network has expressed concerns that religious organisations could fall foul of equality laws and be bullied by public authorities to conduct services.