LONDON -- British lawmakers voted Tuesday to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed, siding with majority opinion in the country but exposing major divisions within the ruling Conservative Party.
Nearly seven hours of debate in Parliament culminated in a 400-175 vote in favor of a bill that authorizes same-sex marriages but also exempts religious organizations from having to perform them. The measure puts Britain on track to join other European nations, including Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands, in opening up marriage to homosexual couples.
The bill now goes to committee and then to the House of Lords. But its approval in the House of Commons makes it highly likely that it will eventually become law.
The vote handed Prime Minister David Cameron, whose administration sponsored the legislation, both a political victory and a political defeat. Approval of the bill allows him to portray himself and his government as in tune with public opinion and modern values, but it came at the cost of an angry mutiny by his own Conservative backbenchers, who said he had no mandate to press for such a change.
An early count showed that as many, if not more, Conservatives lawmakers voted against the measure as for it, with many others abstaining. Its passage relied on the support of lawmakers from the opposition Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats, the junior party in the government coalition.
The result is a blow to Cameron’s authority as head of the Conservatives at a time when the party’s rank and file are already nervous about his administration’s ability to turn around Britain’s sputtering economy. In a rare move, Cameron showed up in the House of Commons to cast a vote Tuesday evening.
“I think it’s right that gay people should be able to get married too,” the British leader said in a last-minute televised interview. “This is, yes, about equality, but it’s also about making our society stronger…. It’s an important step forward for our country.”
Aware of the sensitivity of the issue, Cameron permitted a vote according to personal conscience instead of ordering Conservative lawmakers to toe the government line. But that resulted in the spectacle of Tory backbenchers standing up in the house, one after the other, to denounce their own leadership during the debate.
“Where does [the government] have a mandate to inflict this massive social, cultural change? It was not in our party’s manifesto,” Conservative lawmaker Gerald Howarth thundered. “There are many major issues this country needs to deal with. This is an irrelevance.”
Some opponents of the bill cited their religious convictions, while others noted that Britain already offers civil partnerships for same-sex couples, which confer the same rights as marriage.
But that is no longer enough, said Maria Miller, the government minister who introduced the legislation.
“A legal partnership is not perceived in the same way and does not have the same promises of responsibility and commitment as marriage,” Miller said. “All couples who enter a lifelong commitment together should be able to call it marriage.”
Polls here show a clear majority of Britons to be in favor of equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. Despite the revolt by his backbenchers and vociferous opposition by some religious groups, Cameron is hoping that the brouhaha will quickly fade and that voters will be left with the impression of his government as a modernizing force.
“We live in a society now where most people are perfectly happy with gay people and gay relationships, and it seems the right moment to acknowledge that gay relationships are every bit as loving, stable and rich as straight relationships,” said Andy Wasley of the gay rights group Stonewall. “It really reflects 21st century British values.”