As I visit both the East and West Coasts of the United States, where marriage of same sex couples has been a part of life for the last few years, it's a good moment to reflect on the past year. It's been a time where equal marriage has been in the headlines across the world, from the first gay marriage in France back in May, it becoming law in New Zealand in August, and the U.S. Supreme Court not taking up the case of Proposition 8, which has enabled marriages of same sex couples to continue in California.
It is just three months since the UK Parliament passed a new law to enable same sex couples to marry in England and Wales. As is quite often the case, we had a rigorous debate over various elements of the legislation. But throughout the debate, the one thing that I was always very clear about was that it all boiled down to one question: Is it right to exclude people from the institution of marriage simply because they love someone of the same sex?
Marriage embodies the principles of love, loyalty and commitment. These are all vital components of a strong society. Marriage brings stability, it binds us together and it makes our families stronger and none of that is at all affected by the gender of the people involved in the relationship. Marriage is a wonderful institution with enormous value, so why should it be denied to anyone?
During the course of the debate in our Parliament concerns were raised that religious organisations and individuals would be required to conduct same sex marriages to allay these fears, we put in place a series of religious protections that will ensure this cannot happen. Others said, that our plans would prevent people of faith who work in schools, charities and other public bodies from speaking freely about their beliefs on the meaning of marriage.
None of those concerns are valid. We have always been clear that being able to follow your faith openly is a vital freedom in the UK, and one that we will always protect. No individual will be required to promote or endorse views about marriage which go against their conscience. And what's more, we will oppose any attempt to undermine the long-held freedom of religions to preach, teach and practice their beliefs about marriage.
Equal marriage is about the fundamental values and principles which bind us together as a society. I remain of the view that far from being a radical departure, equal marriage is simply one more in a long line of reforms which have strengthened the institution of marriage, ensuring it remains relevant to our society in the 21st century.
Now that the debate in parliament has finished and the legislation has been passed, work is now underway to put in place all the necessary arrangements to ensure same sex couples can actually marry, and we plan to celebrate the first same sex wedding in England and Wales by next summer.
Politicians, irrespective of which part of the world we represent, are privileged to be able to debate and decide on many issues that make a difference to the lives of those who elect us, on issues that strengthen the fabric of our society. Same sex marriage will make a real difference in the lives of thousands of people and I am proud that we now live in a society which makes it possible.
Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller.