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Editorial: A betrayal of principle on same-sex marriage

Cameron's attempt to merge principle with political calculation has failed

David Cameron has made much of his promise to make the institution of marriage equally available to all British citizens, heterosexual or homosexual. But the plans that his Government unveiled today shamefully fail to deliver on such a pledge. Indeed, they are so hedged about with concessions that they will, in all likelihood, cause as much indignation among campaigners for equality as the original proposal did among opponents on the Tory right.

Not only will the new law allow other churches, synagogues and mosques to refuse to conduct gay marriages – and give them "watertight" protections against gay couples who want to take them to court to enforce equality legislation. It will also refuse to allow dissenting clerics to conduct same-sex marriages in individual churches if their organisation's governing body has expressly declined to opt in. Most disappointing of all, same-sex marriages will be illegal in the Church of England.

Such restrictions are a tragedy both for enlightened members of those religions and also for Britain's established Church, already struggling to demonstrate that it is in touch with the rest of British society. For the Prime Minister, however, the implications of today's proposals are worse still, for they are nothing short of a betrayal of his undertaking to offer equal treatment to all couples wishing to marry. Mr Cameron talked big; what he delivered is a cobbling together of compromise and cowardice of which he should be ashamed.

In one move Mr Cameron has managed to outrage, irritate or alienate all sides of the argument. Equality campaigners will be indignant at exceptions that the Government has built into the "quadruple legal lock" which guarantees protection for organisations that refuse gay marriage. Lawyers will be bemused by the complications it introduces on consummation and adultery. And those who hold to the traditional religious definition of marriage will not be convinced that the Government's legal two-step will survive the evolution of definitions of equality under the European Convention on Human Rights.

It was ironic that this travesty of a measure should be unveiled on the same day that a new census reveals Britain to be an increasingly diverse nation, with the percentage of those describing themselves as Christian falling from 72 to 59 per cent in a decade, and a greater mix of nationalities in the population. This ought to be a time when diversity is celebrated rather than restricted, especially since a clear majority of the public now support gay marriage.

There is a further irony. Many suspect that Mr Cameron has been so vociferous an advocate of gay marriage because he saw it as a totemic issue to signal his modernisation of the Conservative Party. It is, perhaps, why he pressed the issue in the teeth of intense internal opposition. To have made so many concessions to those same backbenchers – many of whom he will now have to battle over Europe – may have bought him a few brownie points within his own party. But he has done so at the cost of a serious blow to his credibility as the standard bearer for a new, modern kind of Conservatism.

"I don't support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative; I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative," the Prime Minister has previously said. Such a sentiment now rings painfully hollow. The attempt to merge principled belief with crude political calculation has failed. Mr Cameron has tried to be too clever. In the attempt, he has made a mockery of the concept of equal treatment for all couples.