The British government has announced that a consultation into allowing civil same-sex marriage will begin in the Spring, but the push will not include legalizing religious marriage for same-sex couples or allowing heterosexual couples who are non-religious the right to a civil partnership.
This announcement was made over the weekend by Liberal Democrat and coalition equalities minister Lynne Featherstone who said that a formal consultation process would begin in March 2012, meaning that it is conceivable the government will have passed legislation for same-sex civil marriage before the next general election in 2015.
This comes after Prime Minister David Cameron, who has said he is “emphatically in favor” of allowing same-sex marriage, reportedly intervened to ensure the consultation would go ahead. All three main party leaders in England are on record as supporting same-sex marriage.
“I am delighted to confirm that early next year, this government will begin a formal consultation on equal civil marriage for same-sex couples,” said Featherstone.
“This would allow us to make any legislative changes before the end of this parliament,” she said.
“We will be working closely with all those who have an interest in the area to understand their views ahead of the formal consultation.”
The change would affect England and Wales but not Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Prior to this the Scottish government began a consultation on same-sex marriage as well as religious ceremonies for civil partnerships, with the view that same-sex marriage should be introduced in Scotland but that religious institutions should not be forced to solemnize such unions if they decide they do not want to. This has provoked a fierce debate among faith leaders who remain torn on the issue. You can find out more about the consultation here.
The English government’s decision to focus on civil same-sex marriage rather than introduce legislation providing for religious marriages has angered some who say that it will continue the unequal treatment of same-sex couples even when there are several religious denominations wanting to provide for same-sex couples.
International human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, writing in a separate piece for the Guardian, goes one further and asks why the government is not providing civil partnerships for straight couples who do not want to have to tie themselves to the religious associations of marriage in order to have their partnerships recognized:
It is perplexing that the minister for equality wants to maintain discriminatory laws that prohibit gay couples from having a religious marriage and heterosexual couples from having a civil partnership.
Given that the government has no plans to scrap civil partnerships, Featherstone is wrong to rule out in advance any discussion on opening them up to opposite-sex couples. Many heterosexuals would like a civil partnership. Denying them this option is unfair – and illegal under human rights law. How can the equality minister support this?
The government’s proposed continuation of the ban on religious gay marriages is another surprise. It is an infringement of religious freedom to dictate to faith organisations what they can and cannot do. Some religions – such as the Quakers, Unitarians and liberal Judaism – want to conduct same-sex marriages. The equality minister says they will not be allowed to do so.
While no religious body should be forced to perform gay or lesbian marriages, the government should support an end to the legal prohibition on same-sex weddings conducted by faith organisations.
Tatchell also asks why the government has delayed the consultation. Indeed, the government’s original plans had been to begin the consultation in June of this year. However, persistent opposition from the Anglican and Roman Catholic church as well as other factors put the plans on hold. Tatchell points out that putting the consultation back to next year means the legislation will not be introduced until 2013 and this puts action “perilously close” to the general election, meaning that if an early poll were called the bill would might be jettisoned.
Tatchell is of course one of the central driving forces behind the Equal Love Campaign which seeks to allow straight couples who are not religious the ability to have a civil partnership and same-sex couples that wish to have a marriage ceremony the ability to have a marriage (religious institutions would not be forced to recognize such unions, though could at their own discretion).
Earlier this year the Equal Love campaign had eight British couples, four heterosexual and four homosexual, file a case with the European Court of Human Rights to have the UK’s civil partnership and marriage divide lifted. Indeed, Tatchell’s valid criticisms of the newly announced same-sex marriage proposal also serves to set out why the Equal Love campaign’s case may still be relevant.
That said, the reception of the proposed same-sex marriage consultation has been largely positive in the UK and the proposal seems unlikely to meet resistance from the general public who in 2009 were already polling in favor of allowing equal access to marriage for same-sex couples.