‘Stop focusing on 0.1 per cent’: High Court judge attacks Government for time spent on gay marriage when families are in crisis
A High Court judge yesterday attacked David Cameron’s focus on gay marriage, saying he should be concentrating on tackling the ‘crisis in family breakdown’.
Sir Paul Coleridge, who is head of a charity that combats marriage breakdown, said the question of gay unions was merely a ‘minority issue’.
He said that rather than wasting so much time on something which will only affect ‘0.1 per cent’ of the population, the Prime Minister should be doing more to tackle family breakdown, an issue which affects ‘99.9 per cent’ of Britons.
Sir Paul said same-sex marriage was the wrong policy for ministers to be pursuing when divorce rates among traditional unions had reached ‘obscene’ levels.
Mr Cameron wants to allow gay couples to get married in churches, but says religious organisations will be able to opt out if they want to.
Civil partnerships – which come with most, but not all, of the legal safeguards of marriage – were introduced seven years ago. They allow gay couples to celebrate their unions in civil settings, but not in religious buildings.
Now the Government wants to allow them to call their unions marriage and hold the ceremony in civil and religious settings.
Religious organisations such as the Quakers and the Unitarians have said they would like to be able to host gay marriages.
But the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church are against it and the legislation says it would be illegal for any Anglican vicar to marry a gay couple.
Yesterday, another poll showed the public is in favour of legalising same-sex unions. The ComRes survey of 1,000 people found that 62 per cent oppose the Government’s plan to make it illegal for Anglican vicars to conduct gay marriages.
Sir Paul set up his independent charity, The Marriage Foundation, last year. It campaigns for more to be done to tackle family breakdown, and to make marriage ‘the gold standard of relationships’
Three weeks ago, he was rebuked by the Office for Judicial Complaints after a barrister complained that his connection with the charity broke rules preventing judges associating themselves with any ‘organisation, group or cause’.
The disciplinary panel found there had been no misconduct but called on him to take a more low-profile role within the foundation.
Catholic criticism: Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies (left), likened legalising same-sex marriage with Nazi attempts to undermine religion, while the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols (right), said the Coalition’s plans were ‘undemocratic’
However, Sir Paul said he would be remaining as head of the organisation. Now he has continued his defiance by attacking Mr Cameron’s focus on gay marriage.
‘So much energy and time has been put into the debate for 0.1 per cent of the population, when we have a crisis of family breakdown,’ he said.
‘It’s gratifying that marriage in any context is centre stage, but it [gay marriage] is a minority issue. We need a much more focused position by the Government on the importance of marriage.’
Sir Paul, who sits in the High Court Family Division, said the Marriage Foundation did not take a position on gay unions.
But he added: ‘The breakdown of marriage and its impact on society affects 99.9 per cent of the population. That is where the investment of time and money should be, where we really do need resources.’
The judge welcomed a recent small fall in the divorce rate, but said it was statistically insignificant. The overall divorce rate – 42 per cent – remained ‘miles too high’ and resulted in 3.8million children in the family justice system.
Sir Paul added: ‘This is an obscene level of family breakdown.’
His intervention came in the wake of criticism of the gay marriage plans from the most senior Roman Catholic in England and Wales. The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, said they were ‘undemocratic’ and ‘Orwellian’.
But Nick Herbert, the former policing minister, said on Twitter: ‘I’m troubled by the tone of Catholic leaders’ interventions on gay marriage… and by the intervention of a High Court judge at all.
‘A law extending minority rights proposed in a Parliamentary democracy with majority public support is hardly “Orwellian”.
‘Since when in the eyes of the judiciary did a proposed law become unnecessary because it only affects a minority?
‘And a judge who intervenes in political debate damages judicial independence – whether you agree with him or not.’
Last night Liberal Democrat minister Lynne Featherstone attacked opponents of gay marriage.
On her blog, Miss Featherstone, an international development minister, said it was ‘quite shameful to argue against equal marriage on the grounds that religions will be forced to conduct such marriages’.
A No 10 spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister has made it clear that he is a massive supporter of marriage and that he doesn’t want people to be excluded from that great institution.’