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Britain, France close in on same-sex marriage after bitter feuds

Campaigners Martin Brown and Archie Young kiss during a demonstration for a “yes” vote to allow gay marriage, as they protest outside Britain’s Parliament in London on Feb. 5, 2013.

LUKE MACGREGOR/REUTERS

Despite massive street protests, threats, insults and political infighting, gay marriage is close to becoming a reality in two of Europe's biggest countries.

Parliaments in France and Britain have taken major steps this week toward legalizing same-sex marriages, despite fierce opposition from many groups including the Church of England and the Vatican.

On Tuesday, Members of Parliament in Britain, by a vote of 400 to 175, approved a bill that in principle will legalize gay marriage in England and Wales. That vote came three days after deputies in France passed a measure that allows marriages between any two people, not just a man and a woman.

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While both countries have yet to adopt final legislation, they are on the way to joining Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Denmark which have legalized gay marriage. Scotland is introducing a similar law, while many other European countries, including Germany, have given legal recognition to same-sex unions for years.

But the new push this on gay marriage laws is an indication that a growing majority of people across Europe have become comfortable with idea of same-sex couples. In Britain polls show 55 per cent of people support gay marriage, with 36 per cent against it. There are similar majorities in France, as well as in Spain where the country's gay marriage laws were recently upheld by the top court.

Still, that hasn't stopped opponents from being heard and having an impact.

In Britain, the vast majority of Labour and Liberal Democrats voted for the bill Tuesday. But roughly half of the Conservative Party caucus defied their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, and voted against the bill. Many Tory MPs were furious at the proposed legislation and criticized Mr. Cameron for bringing it forward.

"Where does [Mr. Cameron] have a mandate to inflict this massive social and cultural change?" Conservative MP Sir Gerald Howarth asked during the debate. "There are many major issues this country needs to deal with. This is an irrelevance," he added.

The Church of England also came out against the bill, suggesting that while it doesn't compel religious organizations to marry same-sex couples, the law could be challenged on that ground in the European Court of Human Rights. A court decision then, church leaders argued, could end up forcing churches to conduct such marriages.

Some evangelical churches also banded together in what they call the "Coalition for Marriage," launching a petition opposing the bill that has attracted more than 600,000 signatures. A video on the group's website claimed the bill could lead to further redefinitions of marriage including polygamy.

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Maria Miller, the Women and Equalization Minister, rejected those arguments. "This bill, I believe, is about one thing. It's about fairness," she told the House of Commons. "It's about giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so, whilst protecting the rights of those who don't agree with same sex marriage." She added that it was "inconceivable" the European court would interfere with religious organizations.

The debate in France has been even more heated. Deputies have been debating the proposed law for more than a week, including all last weekend. More than 5,000 amendments have been introduced by opponents in an attempt to derail it. And on the streets protests have attracted hundreds of thousands of people. Activists have joined the Roman Catholic Church in leading the opposition and they are show no signs of letting up, with more public protests to come.

But much of the public appears to have moved on from the issue and many experts doubt gay marriage will be much of an issue in the next national elections in Britain or France.

"For some people this … may push them into not voting for the [Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in Britain]," said Andy Walton, the co-author of a report on the religious opposition for Theos, a London-based think tank that studies religious issues. "What we know is that despite all the heat and light that we see around this issue at the moment, people in the 2016 [British] election are mostly going to vote on the economy."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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