Same-sex marriage is a true Tory principle

Marriage not only enriches the life of the couple, it enriches society. When    two people love one another, and are willing to make a lifelong commitment    to each other, then society itself is strengthened. 

It is precisely because marriage is such a uniquely important institution that    we should ensure that all couples who want to enter into it, regardless of    their sexuality, can do so. 

Conservatives who believe in marriage should feel this most strongly. As David    Cameron said to his own Party Conference, "I don't support gay marriage    despite being a Conservative; I support gay marriage because I'm a    Conservative."

Civil partnerships for gay couples were a great step forward. Entering into    one was the most important thing I have done in my life. I will forever be    grateful for the courage of politicians - including many Conservatives -    who, against much opposition, supported this change. 

But civil partnerships are not marriages. They convey almost the same legal    rights, but they do not express the same universally understood commitment.

Many people say that civil partnerships should be enough. But their very    opposition to what is now being proposed only underlines the point that    marriage is indeed distinct. 

And I have felt increasingly uncomfortable when told that I should accept    something that others would not. I wonder how heterosexual married couples    would feel if they were informed that they couldn't be married after all,    and that a civil partnership would have to do. 

I appreciate that there are some who take a different view, including many who    are not homophobic but have a profound religious conviction about the nature    of marriage. We must conduct this debate in a spirit of mutual respect and    understanding, and with regard to the special value of religious    institutions. 

Religious freedom is a vitally important principle of our society. This means    that religious groups should be allowed to conduct same sex marriages if    they choose. Why should the state prevent the Quakers, for instance, from    conducting the ceremonies they want? 

Equally, it would be quite wrong to compel religious organisations to marry    same sex couples against their will. The Prime Minister's unequivocal    commitment to ensure this is welcome, and the safeguards should be written    into the legislation itself. 

It is argued that a successful legal challenge to the European Court of Human    Rights could nevertheless see same sex marriages being forced on churches.    This is a red herring. The European Convention on Human Rights guarantees    religious freedom, and the European Court has repeatedly declined to enforce    same sex marriage. In any case, ultimately our Parliament cannot be bound. 

Overstating the case only causes unnecessary concern. Last week the Coalition    for Marriage claimed that churches might no longer marry people at all. This    is not a serious argument. 

They also claimed that this change would be "massively unpopular." In fact,    opinion polls consistently show strong support for it. Only one poll,    conducted on behalf of the Coalition for Marriage itself, arrived at a    different result, because it asked an ambiguous question about the    definition of marriage. 

Nor is this a narrow, metropolitan issue. Support for equal marriage holds    across almost every age and social group, amongst people of faith, and in    every region. Some of the highest levels of support are in the north of    England. 

As the Republicans found in the recent presidential elections, there is no    mileage in alienating the new generation of voters or what is, even in the    United States, a growing majority of public opinion. President Obama    endorsed gay marriage and was re-elected. So, in London, was Boris Johnson. 

Winning politicians who have built the broad base of voter support that is    needed to gain office have got themselves on the right side of this    argument. It is not gay marriage which will cost Conservatives votes: it is    failing to win the common ground. 

These are the political arguments which must be made only because some say    that endorsing equal marriage will damage the Conservative Party. But    politics cannot be the reason for endorsing this change, and it is certainly    not why leading Conservatives from across the Party have signed up to    Freedom to Marry today. We simply believe that this change is the right    thing to do. 

Concern is expressed that marriage is to be re-defined. But marriage has    evolved over the years. Civil marriages were a major change to the    institution, opposed by the churches at the time, yet without them far fewer    people would get married. 

Marriage will remain a lifelong commitment between two people. Making its    benefits available to same sex couples would strengthen those relationships,    it would strengthen society, and it would strengthen the institution of    marriage itself.

Christopher N Howarth