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 Prime Minister said in his speech that “we’re consulting on legalising gay marriage.” In fact, to the annoyance of some campaigners, the consultation was announced by the Equalities Minister last month but will not begin until March of next year. According to gay news website Pink News, the Prime Minster personally intervened to ensure the law is changed “within the lifetime of this parliament“, but Liberal Conspiracy doubts whether this is now practically possible. By contrast, a Scottish consultation on gay marriage launched in September.
Currently, under the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (CPA), same-sex couples are allowed to form civil partnerships. Civil partnerships entitle couples to comparable rights as they would receive under civil marriage, for example in relation to property, tax and pensions. But some still see them as inadequate and representative of a two-tier system.
One major difference between civil partnerships and marriage is that the former are not allowed to take place on religious premises. The current government is committed to the change but there has been no news since its consultation closed on 23 June 2011. The proposed law was part of the Equality Act 2010 (section 202) but has not yet been implemented. A key aspect of the change will be that it is not intended to force any religious organisation to host gay marriages if it does not want to. The section provides:
For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so.
Civil partnerships have been popular: according to a recent Office of National Statistics report, Civil Partnerships: 5 years on there have been 42,778 of them between December 2005, when the CPA came into force, and December 2010. This is equivalent to 85,556 civil partners, which is much higher than the 11,000 to 22,000 people estimated in the Regulatory Impact Assessment on the CPA.
The introduction of civil partnerships has probably also increased public acceptance of gay marriage, although attitudes may have been changing anyway. The ONS report (at page 21) shows clear evidence of this, with the percentage of people saying that “sexual relations between two adults of the same-sex” is always or mostly wrong decreasing from around 85% in the mid-1980s (the height of the HIV AIDS campaign) to around 35% in 2008. Meanwhile, in 2009 The Times reported that 61% of people agree that gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships.
Changing social attitudes, which place the UK in the middle of European attitudes generally (see page 25 of the ONS report), will be in the mind of politicians who now consider gay marriage to be a politically expedient policy. Not everyone will support it, however, most notably religious groups. The Scottish Catholic Church has said it will fight the proposal in Scotland, arguing that the government did not have a mandate to “reconstruct society on ideological grounds”.
Others are against the changes too. Former Telegraph editor Charles Moore argued in the Sunday Telegraph that gay marriage “is not as simple as David Cameron believes”. He even dragged our old friend Maya the Cat (possibly the most influential legal mammal of this century) into the frame:
The point was that Maya was shared between the Bolivian and his boyfriend. He and the boyfriend had been together for four years and the boyfriend’s father was seriously ill. This persuaded the judge to uphold the Bolivian’s right to family life… surely the widespread feeling would be that Maya the cat, the boyfriend and the boyfriend’s sick father do not really amount to what most people would call a family for the Bolivian.
As shown by the surveys, Moore is wrong about “the widespread feeling“, and that will be understood by David Cameron too. But gay marriage will only arrive when Parliament decides it will. That is because the courts, and in particular the European Court of Human Rights (Article 12 of the ECHR provides a right to marry, but yet not for same-sex couples), have said that it is for the Government to prompt such a radical social change, not them. Meanwhile, a group of campaigner is to argue in the courts that heterosexuals should be able to form civil partnerships too, something which is not allowed under the current law.
With the Prime Minister’s unequivocal support it appears that we are moving towards full marriage equality for gay couples, probably by the next Parliament in 2015. This will be too slow for some. But according to the polls, when change does come, most people will welcome it. And as for those who do not, it is probably for the best that unelected judges, Strasbourg and Maya the cat will not get the blame.
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- Will churches really be sued for not allowing civil partnerships?
- European states will not be forced to allow gay marriage
- Gay marriage rules to be challenged, but courts may say decision is Parliament’s
- Little chance of US-style gay marriage ruling here;
- Has the time come for gay marriage in the UK?;
- A good and bad week for gay rights.