Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

The increasingly heated controversy over the Coalition Government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill for England and Wales shifts to Parliament tomorrow (5 February 2013), with the Second Reading debate in the House of Commons. It therefore seems a good point to take stock of what we know about the religious dimensions of the same-sex marriage issue.

Attitudes of faith groups to same-sex marriage

In terms of British public opinion overall, most recent polls are reporting that an absolute majority of adults now favours the legalization of same-sex marriage. YouGov’s last three polls (between December 2012 and February 2013) have all recorded 55% for and 36% against. The latest surveys (December 2012) by Survation, ICM, and Ipsos MORI found majorities of 60%, 62%, and 73% respectively. Where trend data exist, holding question-wording constant, they reveal that support for same-sex marriage has been building slowly but steadily over time.

Notwithstanding there have been many polls on the subject, and that religious leaders have been at the forefront of opposition to same-sex marriage, few data exist about the attitudes to it of adherents of particular faiths. A notable (but limited) exception has been YouGov, whose surveys in March and November 2012 both included breaks for professing Anglicans, who were less positive than average about same-sex marriage.

For example, in November 2012, when 51% of all adult Britons wanted the law changed to permit same-sex marriage, the proportion among Anglicans stood at only 41%, with a plurality of Anglicans (47%) actually opposed to the legislation. Back in March 2012, a mere 24% of Anglicans said that they would support same-sex marriage, against 46% who endorsed civil partnerships. Moreover, 65% vindicated the Church of England’s stance in defending marriage as an institution for just heterosexual couples (18% more than in the population as a whole).

Another YouGov poll (November-December 2011) contrasted the views of those professing some religion and those who had none. At that stage, 71% of Britons agreed with Government plans to ‘extend the legal form and name of civil marriage to same-sex couples’, but the number rose to 82% among those with no religion and fell to 58% for those professing some faith. Similarly, 15% more of the former than the latter (88% versus 73%) backed civil partnerships.

Beyond that, at least in terms of poll data which have fully entered the public domain, one has to go back to the British Social Attitudes Surveys in 2007 and 2008 for a full profile of attitudes to same-sex marriage by religion. Different questions were asked in each year, so direct comparison is not possible. However, in 2007 people of no faith had an 11% more positive attitude to same-sex marriage than the norm and in 2008 9% more. Almost at the other end of the spectrum, Anglicans had, respectively, 27% and 22% less positive views than those without a religion. Christians other than Anglicans and Catholics were also relatively unsympathetic to same-sex marriage at that point.

An even firmer line has been taken by regular churchgoers, surveyed by ComRes in October 2011 and June-July 2012. At the former date, 83% declared their opposition to Government plans to legalize same-sex marriage, 93% fearing that ministers of religion would have to conduct gay marriages against their conscience, 88% that schools would be required to teach children that same-sex relationships are on an equal footing as heterosexual relationships, and 85% that the value of marriage would be further undermined.

As many as 57% of regular churchgoers in October 2011 claimed that they would be less likely to vote Conservative as a result of Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment to legalize same-sex marriage, and the figure was still 58% in June-July 2012. At this second date, 75% reported that their perceptions of Cameron had worsened in the light of his Government’s desire to change the definition of marriage, while 65% said the same about Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The suggestion that the threat to the institution of marriage posed by same-sex unions might have been overblown was dismissed by 69%.

Same-sex marriages in places of worship

In an endeavour to placate religious opinion, the Government, in drafting the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, has tried to ensure that no religious body would be forced to conduct same-sex weddings in places of worship against its will. The measure contains a so-called ‘quadruple lock’ to guard against this possibility, including clarification that the duty of the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry parishioners ‘does not extend to same-sex couples’, thereby (it is claimed) protecting them from legal challenge.

The ‘compromise’, albeit most faith bodies do not necessarily regard it in that light, seems to have muddied the waters somewhat so far as public opinion is concerned. In its latest poll (January-February 2013) YouGov charted a spread of views: 9% feeling that all religions should be required to conduct same-sex marriages; 40% that all religions should be empowered to perform such ceremonies if they wished to; 24% that religions should be so empowered but that the law should protect the freedom of those bodies who wished to prevent same-sex marriages occurring on their premises; and 20% that no religion should be entitled to conduct same-sex marriages.

Ipsos MORI’s poll in December 2012 revealed a bigger proportion (28%) wanting the law to require religions to provide weddings for same-sex couples, but far more (45%) wished to see no such requirement, the residuum of 24% opposing same-sex marriages in any location. On the other hand, as many as 40% of Britons in the OnePoll study in May 2012 wished to see same-sex couples having the opportunity to get married in church if that is what they desired to do.

In another YouGov survey (December 2012), which predated publication of the Bill, the topic was approached in a different way. British adults were then inclined, in the matter of religious marriages, to put the interests of faith bodies above sexual equality: 46% believed that, ultimately the right of Churches to restrict religious marriages to men and women should take precedence over the rights of same-sex couples, with only 27% taking the opposite line. A slim plurality (45%) wanted the law to keep religious weddings to those between a man and a woman, just 4% ahead of those who disagreed. However, a majority (53%) also wanted religions to have the legal option to offer same-sex marriages, if they wanted, albeit this was 18% down on the level in the YouGov survey of November-December 2011.

As for the position of the Church of England, Survation found in December 2012 that a majority (58%) defended its entitlement to oppose same-sex marriage, twice the number in disagreement, but in a YouGov poll in November 2012 more said that the Church was wrong (48%) than right (39%) to oppose same-sex marriage. At the same time, certainly by December 2012, most Britons wanted individual Anglican clergy to have the discretion to offer religious weddings to same-sex couples if they could do so in good conscience: 62% expressed this desire in a ComRes poll and 54% in the Survation one (with 35% arguing the opposite, that the Government should make it illegal for any Anglican clergy to conduct same-sex marriages until such time as the Church’s governing body approves the idea).

The concern for faith bodies, of course, is that however confident the Government may be about the security of its ‘quadruple lock’, the courts – whether British or European – might have other ideas. The public feels that there may be some ground for this anxiety, 34% in YouGov’s poll in December 2012 considering there was a risk, following legislation, that the courts would force places of worship to conduct same-sex marriages whether they wanted to or not; 43% deemed the prospect unlikely, with 23% undecided.

Regular churchgoers have particular concerns in this regard. In the ComRes survey of June-July 2012, 79% disbelieved Government assurances that places of worship would not be forced to conduct same-sex marriages, and 86% were apprehensive that the courts in Britain or the European Court of Human Rights would overturn any legal protections.

These churchgoers will be further discouraged by the fact that 50% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (LGBs) interviewed by ComRes in January 2013 fully expected the European courts eventually to remove any statutory restrictions on access to same-sex weddings in places of worship. Three-fifths of LGBs at that time, and in another ComRes poll in April-May 2012, contended that true marriage equality would only be achieved when same-sex couples had the identical choice of marriage locations as heterosexuals. Indeed, 35% of LGBs at the earlier date wanted the Government to force faith groups to offer religious ceremonies from the start.


Although more research is needed into the attitudes of members of faith groups to same-sex marriage, it seems undeniable that the opposition to the Government’s plans does come disproportionately from people of faith, and that the more committed that faith (for example, in terms of regular churchgoing), the stronger the defence of the ‘traditional’ concept of marriage between a man and a woman. Even 42% of all Britons interviewed by Survation in December 2012 recognized that ‘marriage is a sacred act between a man and a woman and cannot be a sacred act between same-sex couples’.

The opposition to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill on the part of most major faith bodies (the exceptions are really quite small in terms of their active memberships) has undoubtedly been accentuated by fears that the ‘quadruple lock’ would not withstand serious legal challenge, particularly from Europe, and by what appear to many to be the muddying of the divide between civil and religious marriages in the provisions of the Bill. The latter undoubtedly seem to have triggered quite a wide range of views.

In practice, most pundits expect that, notwithstanding the prospect of blood on the Conservative benches, the Bill will clear the House of Commons, thanks to Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs’ support. In its blog of 16 January 2013, the Coalition for Equal Marriage, the pro-same-sex marriage lobby, reported that ‘for the first time, a majority of MPs have committed to vote for a change in the law to lift the ban on same-sex marriage in England and Wales’. The Bill’s passage in the House of Lords is less predictable. As BRIN noted on 12 January, the latest ComRes survey among peers suggests there could be major resistance on the Conservative benches.

It is hopefully superfluous to caution that it would be potentially misleading to generalize from attitudes to the specific measure of same-sex marriage to opinions of gay rights as a whole. It does not follow that, because faith bodies have significant objections in principle to what they see as the undermining of the traditional view of marriage, they are homophobic. We will have to leave for another day a broader review of the changing perceptions of homosexuality among faith groups. In the meantime, interested readers could start with the research by Dr Ben Clements of the University of Leicester, which was posted on BRIN on 12 June 2012.   

In order to keep this post relatively brief and uncomplicated, source references have not been given to the many opinion polls mentioned above. In most cases, topline and/or disaggregated data can be found on the websites of the polling agencies concerned. BRIN has collated all recent opinion polls on the subject of same-sex marriage, not just those pertaining to the religious aspects, in connection with research for the 2013 series of Westminster Faith Debates. This collation will eventually appear on the BRIN website.


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  1. Pingback: Same-Sex Marriage and Other News | British Religion in Numbers

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