The Gibraltar Parliament yesterday unanimously passed landmark legislation legalising civil marriage between same sex couples.
In so doing the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, stressed that Parliament was not interfering with any religion, changing any sacrament or trying ‘alter the course of nature’.
“Today we are changing a law that got in the way of love and in doing so we are doing the right thing,” he told the House.
In presenting the Bill to Parliament yesterday, Minister for Equality, Samantha Sacramento, said “marriage is a hugely important institution.”
“This, of course, has been an important and a very emotive subject with strong views for and against,” she said, underscoring that it was important for the government to strike a balance between equality and respect for individual beliefs.
The Bill, Ms Sacramento said, will enable same sex couples to enter in a civil ceremony in a registry office or other approved place whilst ‘protecting’ and ‘promoting’ religious freedom.
“I wish to make that point very clear, Mr Speaker, that this is about civil marriage and not holy matrimony or any other religious marriage,” she said, as she set out certain ‘religious safeguards’ contained within the Bill.
This includes a provision for Deputy Registrars who do not wish to conduct the marriage of a same sex couple to opt out.
In such cases, however, an alternative registrar will be assigned to conduct the marriage.
“This Bill will place all couples on the same footing as other couples already married at the registry office, as the proposed amendments to the Marriage Act will provide the same option for all,” Ms Sacramento said.
She heralded the Bill as a “historic step” and a “reflection of progressive and inclusive society” as well as a further testament of the government’s commitment to equality.
“There is no such thing as gay marriage, it will just be marriage for all,” she said.
While the Bill enjoyed the support from all members present its passage was far from smooth.
Furious debate erupted surrounding the opt-out provision as a trio of Opposition MPs voiced their objections to it.
Independent MP, Marlene Hassan Nahon, commended the motivating principle behind the Bill in “righting a grievous wrong,” but expressed “serious reservations” as the Bill “grants concessions to government workers to refuse to discharge their professional responsibilities.”
“I am saddened that a Bill that aims to end discrimination with one hand legitimises it with the other,” she said, adding that she would table an amendment to the Bill at the committee stage.
GSD MP Elliott Phillips said: “In my view those charged by the State for conducting civil marriages cannot simply refuse to perform their public duty because of their beliefs, the marriage registrar and the deputy registrar are public officials and as such they must conduct marriages that are permitted by our laws.”
GSD MP Roy Clinton echoed those sentiments.
The Leader of the Opposition, Daniel Feetham, expressed his firm support for the Bill and with regards to the amendment he said he was in the minority on the Opposition side of the House.
“I believe that the clause allowing an opt-out on religious grounds for Registrars is justifiable and I will be supporting that particular clause in the Bill and I will be voting against the amendment,” Mr Feetham told the House.
“Although I am a believer and a firm believer in equality, one of the things that I lament most in the way that the United Kingdom and other jurisdictions have developed as a consequence of some of the legislation that has been introduced from the equality perspective in some of those jurisdictions has been the forcing on Christian minorities, on Muslim minorities, on religious minorities to do things that they would not otherwise have done because of their conscience.”
He pointed to a recent case in Northern Ireland in which the evangelical Christians owners of a bakery were found guilty of discrimination for declining to bake a pro-gay-marriage themed cake, something Mr Feetham described as “absolutely ridiculous”.
Mr Picardo, pointing to constitutional provision, said that with the opt-out safeguard the government was ensuring that it provides not just for the right of equality of same sex couples but also for the freedom of conscience of the public servant who may not wish to be involved in the officiating of that particular union.
He underscored that the government comes to this as the employer, in the context of public servants, and not just as a government moving a Bill to bring equality.
The Bill therefore strikes the right balance, he told MPs, in providing equality to those who must have equal marriage but “we will not force it down anybody’s throat that they must also officiate those marriages.”
In her right of reply Ms Sacramento pointed out that the only issue between members is the objection to the opt-out clause.
She said: “The consultation process was a long one, a serious one and one which we took in-depth because it was important for us to understand what the strength of feeling was in the proposal that we were going to put to Parliament because, of course, it is a fundamental matter of equality…and of course, Mr Speaker, when we are looking at something that is so fundamental we are not in the same breath going to discriminate against anybody.”
The proposed amendment was, in any case, defeated 11 votes to four with Mrs Hassan Nahon, Mr Clinton, Mr Phillips and Lawrence Llamas voting in favour of it.
There were two absences but, the Speaker Adolfo Canepa said, nothing should be read into that.
The two members, one Opposition and one Government, were “unavoidably absent”, Mr Canepa said and, in fact, they did not know that this Bill was going to be moved during yesterday’s session.