Conservative Party chairmen led by a Somerset Tory descended on Downing Street yesterday to hand over a letter calling for a halt to proposals to allow same-sex marriage.
The issue, which goes before a free vote of MPs this week, is threatening to divide the Conservative Party with grassroots members in the rural West at the forefront of a mini rebellion.
More than 180 Tory MPs are understood to be voting against the Government’s proposal to allow gay and lesbian couples to get married, while at the same time giving churches the right to refuse to marry them in a religious ceremony.
A new website, called Conservative Grassroots, has just been set up, and it carried the full text of the letter signed by more than 20 past and present chairmen of constituency parties, calling for David Cameron to re-think the issue.
One of those signatories who made the trip to Westminster yesterday was Ed Costelloe, who resigned last month as chairman of the Somerton & Frome Conservative Association in protest at the gay marriage proposals. He said: “Many of us feel a huge sense of personal betrayal over these plans. We worked hard locally to convince people to support Conservatives but this was not part of the platform. There was no mention of this in the Manifesto.
“We don’t know where this has come from or why it has become such a priority given so many other pressing issues. We are also shocked by the way in which it is being pushed through with so little regard for proper scrutiny. The Government seems intent on restricting debate at every stage both in the public consultation and now in the Parliamentary process.
“There is huge public concern at the local level and we are seeing people leave the Party. It is certainly not a vote winner,” he added.
The letter said many feared problems ahead for churches and ministers who may find themselves open to equality prosecutions if they refuse to marry a same-sex couple, even though the Prime Minister said the safeguards written into the law were ‘copper-bottomed’.
“Long-held religious and personal freedoms and the right to free speech will be adversely affected by the passing of this Bill,” the Tory chairmen’s letter said. “You will be aware of the recent judgment by the European Court of Human Rights that failed to secure ‘religious freedom’ protection to an Islington civil registrar who lost her job after seeking a conscientious exemption from presiding over civil partnership ceremonies for homosexual couples, and a marriage counsellor who was dismissed after expressing a possible conscientious objection to providing same-sex sexual therapy.
“Because of these past precedents and the power of the ECHR to overrule British courts on matters relating to religious freedom and human rights, we do not feel the proposed ‘quadruple lock’ in the Bill will protect the perceived rights of one minority will not simply be used to overrule the rights of the majority and impinge on values considered sacrosanct to our Party and country,” they added.
With a free vote and no party whip, many ministers are understood to be voting against the legislation and even half the Conservative whips office itself. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt defended the plan, amid fears the issue is dividing the Tory party.
“Religious freedom is not just for heterosexuals – we should not deny anyone the right to make a lifelong commitment to another person in front of God if that is what they believe and that is what their church allows.”
Culture minister Ed Vaizey insisted the vote would not tear the Tory party apart, and claimed divisions over the issue were “good-natured”.
“We’ll see what happens in the vote on Tuesday, various numbers have been bandied about but what I would say is that it is good-natured division,” he told Murnaghan on Sky News. “Is this going to tear the Tory party apart? No, I don’t think it will. I t is a civilised debate.”
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell protested outside Downing Street as the letter was handed in, waving a placard reading “End ban on same-sex marriage. Marriage equality!”