LONDON (BP) -- British lawmakers have voted in favor of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, putting the country on a path to become the 12th country worldwide to do so.
Supporters celebrated the bill as a step towards "equality," but church leaders and conservatives warned, if implemented, the measure will bring serious social and cultural ramifications.
Spearheaded by Prime Minister David Cameron, the bill still has to endure parliamentary debates and earn approval of the House of Lords before becoming law. If approved, it would allow same-sex couples to get married in both civil and religious ceremonies, provided the religious institution consents, starting in 2015. Parliament approved it Feb. 5. France's legislators also seem set to legalize gay marriage in the coming days.
Opponents in Britain have expressed concern about how the measure will threaten religious freedom. In response, Culture Secretary Maria Miller stressed all religious organizations can decide for themselves whether they want to "opt in." But the bill wouldn't protect business-owning church members from having to recognize gay marriage in any context outside the church. For business owners, discrimination lawsuits like the one against bed and breakfast owner Susanne Wilkinson also could increase.
In December, British lawyer Aidan O'Neil warned in a legal opinion against a variety of situations in which supporters of traditional marriage would be forced to recognize gay unions as marriage. Primary school teachers who refuse to teach LGBT-friendly curricula could be fired and marriage registrars who refuse to fill out marriage licenses could be sued, O'Neil said.
The law's religious provision specifically exempts the Church of England from performing same-sex marriages, since they are banned by Canon law. That provision is supposed to protect the church from legal trouble, but Church of England officials expressed concern it might not be enough.
"It is impossible to predict whether those provisions will prove robust enough to resist challenge in the courts, particularly at Strasbourg ," they wrote in an eight-page briefing about the bill. "The possibility of a successful claim against the United Kingdom under the Human Rights Convention, on the basis that the 'locks' contained in the legislation discriminate unjustifiably against same sex couples, cannot be ruled out."
The bill revealed a deep division between parties in the House.
"Strong views exist on both sides," admitted Cameron. Half of his Conservative Party rejected the proposal or refused to vote: 127 voted in favor, 136 opposed the bill, and 35 abstained. But strong support from the left-leaning Labour Party and Liberal Democrats secured the bill's approval, based on arguments that the law should recognize same sex marriages as equal to traditional ones.
"Redefining marriage amounts to a legislative assertion that both heterosexual and homosexual relationships are socially identical," they wrote. "Not every aspect of gender equality, or equality for disabled people, is embraced by denying difference. Equality does not necessarily mean uniformity."
Eleven countries recognize gay marriage: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden.
Tiffany Owens writes for World News Service, where this story first appeared. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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