The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is back before Parliament today for the “Report Stage”. The latest version of the Bill is here, updated explanatory notes here, and the full list of proposed amendments here. Predictably, the amendments are the focus of much controversy.
I have written a new article for the New Statesman on some of the myths and realities surrounding the debate - you can read it here. It’s all a bit complicated, as you might expect.
Our previous coverage is linked to below. Hopefully, party politics won’t end up derailing this important bill. As the New Yorker recently predicted
One day, not long from now, it will be hard to remember what worried people so much about gay and lesbian couples committing themselves to marriage.
X AND OTHERS v. AUSTRIA – 19010/07 – HEJUD  ECHR 148 (19 February 2013) – Read judgment
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (by 10 votes to 7) has found that Austrian law discriminated against a same sex couple as it prevented them from adopting jointly the biological child of one of them (what we would call a second-parent adoption). The Court found a violation of Article 14 (anti-discrimination) in conjunction with Article 8 (respect for private and family life) protection because this was less favourable treatment than if they were an unmarried different sex couple who would have been permitted to adopt together.
The narrowness of the majority might have had something to do with the fact that the father of the Child had been a party to the case in the domestic courts and opposed the adoption (although the fact that the child of the lesbian couple in Gas and Dubois v France had been conceived through anonymous donor insemination had not helped that case). In the event, the Grand Chamber decision was based on the fact that the Austrian Supreme Court had referred to the “legal impossibility” of the proposed same sex adoption in this case.
The Prime Minister has announced his support for gay marriage in religious institutions. Having already said, memorably, that “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative”, he has now gone a step further and argued that gay couples should be able to marry on religious premises. But, he also made clear, “if there is any church or any synagogue or any mosque that doesn’t want to have a gay marriage it will not, absolutely must not, be forced to hold it“.
The announcement is important in the context of a legal debate which has been taking place since the Government signalled that marriage law reform was on its agenda: namely, whether religious institutions would be forced, as a result of equalities and human rights legislation, to carry out gay marriage ceremonies whether or not they wanted to. In June, when the Government was consulting over the “equal civil marriage” plans, Church of England sounded the alarm that “it must be very doubtful whether limiting same-sex couples to non-religious forms and ceremonies could withstand a challenge under the European Convention on Human Rights”
What is really interesting about the Prime Minister’s announcement is that the Government is now going beyond its original proposals as set out in the June consultation. At that point, the Government was careful to state that the proposals related only to civil (that is, non-religious) marriage and, indeed said:
The current debate on legalising gay marriage was sparked by one of the more memorable speeches of this Government, when Prime Minister David Cameron said “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.”
What has been missing from the debate since that speech has been a convincing, measured discussion from the political right on what he meant. Until now, that is. Today the Policy Exchange, a leading conservative think tank thank, has published What’s In A Name? Is there a case for equal marriage? Don’t be fooled by the question mark in the title. This report represents the best and most carefully considered case for equal marriage from a conservative (with a small ‘c’) perspective so far.
At the heart of the Church of England’s (CoE) response to the Government’s Equal marriage: a consultation is an argument about the existence and importance of canon law on marriage. The CoE pins its objection to same-sex marriage on the assertion that its ‘teaching on marriage is embodied in law’ and that the Government has failed to consider the significance of canon law in its proposal to change the statutory organization of civil marriage.
What exactly is canon law and how does it relate to marriage?
Canon law (or Canons Ecclesiastical), as set out in the Canons of the Church of England, is primary legislation that determines inter alia the doctrine and form of worship of the CoE. Since the First Act of Supremacy 1534, canon law has been formally subservient to ‘state law’ – it has become progressively subsumed by both common and statutory law – but has often retained a strong influence, particularly in respect of marriage.
The Government’s Consultation on Equal Civil Marriage ends on Thursday 14 June: you can fill in the brief online survey here if you haven’t already. In the meantime, the Church of England is on the front pages this morning with its own response, which amongst other things, warns that “it must be very doubtful whether limiting same-sex couples to non-religious forms and ceremonies could withstand a challenge under the European Convention on Human Rights”
The Church’s argument is set out on pages 10 to 13 of its response. It is interesting, and there might be something in it. However, it is clear from the rest of the document that the Church is, in its introduction, inflating the likelihood of a successful court challenge. This has of course made its way into the press coverage, where it is being suggested that a challenge would “probably” succeed. But even the Church’s own response, reading a little further, does not go this far.
Let’s consider the argument. The Church puts a number of propositions. First,
It remains the case that member states of the Council of Europe are not obliged to make legal provision for same-sex marriage.
Gas and Dubois v France (2012) (application no 25951/07). Read judgment (in French).
The French government did not violate articles 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and 14 ECHR (right not to be discriminated against in one’s enjoyment of Convention rights and freedoms) in not allowing one partner in a homosexual couple to adopt the child of the other. And the Daily Mail goes off on another frolic of its own.
Ms Valerie Gas and Ms Nathalie Dubois, now in their 50s, lived together as a lesbian couple, obtaining the French equivalent of a civil partnership (the pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS) in 2002. Ms Dubois, through artificial insemination in Belgium using an anonymous sperm donor, gave birth to a girl in September 2000. Together, they took care of the child and, in 2006 , Ms Gas, applied to adopt the girl with the consent of her partner, Ms Dubois. Continue reading
The Government has begun its consultation on whether the ban on marriage between people of the same sex should be removed. As suggested by the consultation’s title - Equal civil marriage consultation - the Government is only proposing to remove the ban on civil gay marriage.
The consultation document makes clear that it is “limited to consideration of civil marriage and makes no proposals to change the way that religious marriages are solemnised“. In other words, religious institutions will not be forced to allow same-sex marriages on their premises. And moreover, perhaps in order to dodge some of the controversy which has erupted in recent weeks, there are no plans to allow same-sex marriage to take place on religious premises at all. So even religious denominations which support same-sex marriage in principle will not be allowed to conduct the ceremonies on religious premises.
In his Conservative Party Conference speech the Prime Minister David Cameron signalled his strong support for the legalisation of gay marriage. He said:
Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.
We have covered the slow progress towards legalised gay marriage in a number of posts since this blog launched in March 2010: see the links below. Where are we up to now?
The relationship between the expression of religious beliefs and practice and equality law is a fraught one, and particular difficulty has been experienced in the matter of the application of the law outlawing discrimination.
Equality law, as currently interpreted, treats the six prohibited grounds of discrimination – age, disability, race, religion, sex (including transgender status) and sexual orientation – as being of equal weight and standing; there is no hierarchy among these grounds.
On 17 February the Home Secretary announced that the government was moving ahead with changes to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which would allow the registration of civil partnerships to take place in religious premises.
While welcomed by many, some have voiced concerns that permission will inevitably become coercion. They fear that religious organisations may face legal action if they refuse to facilitate civil partnership ceremonies, a claim the Government denies. But will they?
Quila & Ors v Secretary of State for the Home Department & Ors  EWCA Civ 1482 – Read judgment
A key part of the government’s strategy to combat forced marriages, preventing people under the age of 21 from entering the country to marry, has been heavily criticised by the Court of Appeal.
The decision shows that even policies which pursue a legitimate and laudable aim must still be a proportionate to the problem they seek to address, or risk breaching the human rights of those affected. But it also highlights how difficult it is to set effective policies to combat hazardous arrangements which can involve rape, child abuse and domestic violence, and affect thousands of UK residents annually.
O’Donoghue and Others v. the United Kingdom(application no. 34848/07):
The government’s system for preventing sham marriages as an entry ploy for immigrants breached the right to marry and was discriminatory – read judgment.
By the time this case was lodged the Certificate of Approval Scheme had been much diluted by a series of amendments, but even so the Court found itself to be “gravely concerned” with the policy. This, along with the surprisingly lenient approach to the applicants’ failure to exhaust local remedies, suggests that the Court was anxious to address what it sees as endemic problems in the UK’s border control policy. If states want to use impediments to marriage as an entry deterrent, it says, then they must face being rapped with the Article 12 stick. Continue reading
Schalk and Kopf v. Austria (application no. 30141/04) – Read judgment / press release / press release 2
The European Court of Human Rights has refused permission to appeal in a challenge to the ban on gay marriage in Austria. The effect of the decision is to make the court’s rejection of the same-sex couple’s claim final.
The decision means that the European Court of Human Rights will not force states to allow same-sex couples to marry, for now at least. This has a potential bearing on the UK, where a number of same-sex and heterosexual couples are currently bringing claims against UK laws which permit civil partnerships for same-sex couples but prevents them from marrying.