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U.K.'s House of Lords Begins Debate on Marriage Equality
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/03/13
Last updated on: 06/04/13
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Lord Alli of Norbury. Photo by Theo Grzegorczyk (CC BY-SA 3.0).

On June 3, 2013, U.K.'s House of Lords began debate on the marriage equality bill. In advance of the debate, proponents of the legislation warned the Lords that rejecting the bill will create a constitutional crisis that may lead to the abolition of the House itself. It would be unprecedented for the Lords to reject a bill that had been overwhelmingly approved by the House of Commons.

The last time the House of Lords rejected a bill approved by the Commons also involved gay rights, though that bill had not been passed by a two-to-one margin as the marriage equality legislation was. In 1999, the efforts of Tony Blair's Labour government to equalize the age of consent was rejected by the Lords. In exasperation, Prime Minister Blair evoked the Parliament Act of 1949 to override the Lords, and in 2001 the equal age of consent became legal despite its rejection by the upper house. Prime Minister Cameron has indicated that he will also use the Parliament Act of 1949 to override the House of Lords should it reject the marriage equality bill.

Invocation of the Parliament Act of 1949 would ensure passage of the marriage equality legislation but it would delay it by two years. It would also likely lead to moves to restrict the power of the Lords even more or to abolish the House entirely.

Interestingly, one of the chief sponsors of the marriage equality bill in the House of Lords is Lord Alli of Norbury, a Labour Life Peer who has the distinction of being one of the few openly gay Muslim politicians in the world. He entered the House of Lords in 1999, when he was 34 years old, and immediately became embroiled in the debate over the equal age of consent.

In a dramatic speech in that debate, he told the Lords "I am openly gay. I am 34. I was gay when I was 24, when I was 21, when I was 18, and even when I was 16. I have never been confused about my sexuality. I have [only ever] been confused about the way I am treated as a result of it." Describing how he had been forced to keep his relationships secret and had to endure the indignity of being called "sick," "abnormal," and "unnatural" simply for being gay, he said that equal age of consent was not just a moral right but also a moral imperative.

In an interview in The Independent, Lord Alli, a wealthy media mogul, expressed guarded optimism that the marriage equality bill will pass, noting that since 1999, the Lords have not rejected an equal rights bill. He did note, however, that the vote may be very close.

One of the most surprising speeches given in the House of Lords on the first day of debate was that by Conservative Lord Fowler, who served as Health Minister in Margaret Thatcher's homophobic government. Lord Fowler told the Lords that it would be "political suicide" for them to vote against the marriage equality legislation.

After labelling many of the arguments against marriage equality as nonsense, Lord Fowler said, "I accept and recognize that this is an appointed House, and it is an enormous privilege to be appointed to it. However, with that privilege come limitations on what we can do. Of course we can question legislation and seek to improve it. However, in my view, we cannot defeat at second reading the declared will of the House of Commons when, on a free vote, it has voted by over two to one to pass this legislation."

He went on to speak strongly in favor of the bill itself, declaring that "Parliament should value people equally in the law and enabling same-sex marriage removes a current inequity." He also said that passing the legislation would send a strong message around the world in support of gay rights, including to countries in Africa whose anti-gay laws were first instituted during British rule.

He concluded that equal rights is "a fundamental moral issue."

The text of Lord Fowler's speech may be found here. A BBC account of the first day of debate, including a video, may be found here.

Video of the June 3, 2013 debate in the House of Lords is not yet available. However, in the video below, from 2009, Lord Alli speaks in favor of the omnibus equality bill that instituted broad protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

On June 3, 2013, as the House of Lords debated the marriage equality bill, several hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the Parliament building. The demonstrators were addressed by some members of the House of Lords and serenaded by the London Gay Men's Chorus. Reportedly, the singing could be heard within the chamber in which the Lords debated.

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