When Civil Partnerships began in December 2005 I said that people would soon refer to them as marriages. Adverts in gay magazines showed all the trappings of a wedding such as rings and cakes. It was just that there were two men or two women in the photographs or in miniature on top of the cake. Even if the law didn’t call these new civil unions between same sex couples a “marriage”, society soon would.
In the intervening seven years attitudes towards homosexuality have changed enormously and for the better. We now have legislation guaranteeing equality in the work place and in the provision of goods and services. Hotel owners who turn away two men when they request a double bed can now expect an appearance in court. Children are also better protected, with all schools expected to have plans to combat homophobic bullying. The latter change was one I helped bring about, as one of the relatively few openly gay MPs in the last Parliament.
The Coalition Government wants to build on progress made over the last couple of decades. We have implemented new regulations allowing civil partnerships to be celebrated on religious premises as well as premises already approved for civil marriages. This change is a permissive one – it is up to each faith, denomination or congregation to make the change if they so decide. It looks as though the Quakers, Unitarians and Reform Jewish Synagogues will be in the vanguard.
The next logical step is to enable same sex couples to have their relationship recognised as a civil marriage. This is purely a matter of nomenclature, not rights under the law as a result of a civil union. Many gay couples would prefer their “partnership” to be known as a “marriage”. I also know of many straight couples who want recognition for their relationship but don’t want it to be called a marriage. My personal opinion is that the state should enable loving couples to demonstrate their commitment to each other through the choice of a civil marriage or civil partnership.
The reforms that the Government are considering are in the area of civil unions, not marriage ceremonies performed by certain faiths and denominations. Whether the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England wish to introduce same sex marriages is entirely a matter for them. This is why I find the outbursts by Cardinal O’Brien and Archbishop Sentamu so utterly bizarre. The state is not proposing any change to the marriage rites and ceremonies performed in their churches.
Cardinal O’Brien’s choice of language was also grossly offensive. To claim that the granting of a right to same sex couples to enter into a civil marriage would be a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” is astounding. He clearly believes that gay people are outside the human family, deserving of lesser rights. His analogy of a re-introduction of slavery without the obligation on each of us to own a slave is utterly baseless and again grossly offensive. Cardinal O’Brien’s mind seems to be stuck in a time warp, perhaps in pre 1834 Britain when slavery existed and women had few rights against their husbands.
Gay civil marriage would bring happiness to many people without infringing the rights of anyone else. Religious sensibilities should also not be disturbed by a reform of civil marriage. Rather than “shaming the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world”, as claimed by the Cardinal, I believe that offering loving and committed couples the choice of a civil partnership or a civil marriage would show our country is a world leader in human rights and equality of esteem. That’s where Britain should be and I’m proud that our government is paving the way for it to happen.
UPDATE 15TH MARCH 2012 – my Lib Dem colleague Lynne Featherstone, Home Office and Equalities Miniser, has today launched the Coalition Government’s consultation http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/consultations/equal-civil-marriage/
UPDATE 2 – 5th April – LGBT+Lib Dems have produced a resource pack for supporters of equal marriage here http://www.abouttime.org.uk/