It is amusing to see the Tories tearing themselves apart over gay marriage. After all this is the party who introduced the homophobic Clause 28, and now Cameron is seeking to drive the agenda despite the Conservative Party not having included gay marriage in their manisfesto. There is a political minefield here for the Tories, where public opinion is deeply divided. Hundreds of thousands of people signed the petition from the Coalition for Marriage, opposing the government’s move; but a Populus poll in 2009 found that 61% of the public believe: “Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships.”
Not only is opinion divided, but myths and misinformation are common on both sides of the debate. It is important to understand exactly what this debate is about; and to acknowledge the strongly held opinions on both sides.
There are currently three separate arrangements available:
- Religious marriages between a man and a woman
- Civil marriages between a man and a woman
- Civil partnerships between two men, or between two women.
Religious marriages are only legally civil marriages as well if a separate ceremony (signing the register) accompanies the religious service, and Christian churches are registered with the state to be able to perform that function.
The concession originally made to the Churches was that civil partnerships were NOT civil marriages, that religious institutions could not register to have civil partnerships at their premises, and that religious ceremony could not be held at civil partnership. The Equality Act 2010 introduced a change to allow (though not compel) religious organisations to host civil partnerships. Religious language is also permitted within the ceremonies. It is necessary to understand how the current situation came about, as a compromise between the desire from the former Labour government to introduce equality for lesbian and gay couples, and the concerns by religious groups about the meaning of marriage being redefined.
For the overwhelming majority of Christians, marriage is the sacred union between a man and a woman based upon scriptural authority. This is also true for most schools of Islamic thought and for Orthodox Jews. In addition to scriptural authority, the Christian doctrine of Natural Law (lex naturalis) and the Islamic doctrine that the natural world is a divine revelation (al-Kitab al-manshur) are held up by some religious people as evidence that sex which can lead to procreation of children is especially virtuous. They are entitled to their belief. Furthermore, as a social institution, marriage is fundamentally important to Christians, as they see it as a basic unit of solidarity and compassion, and that central to the traditional marriage is the production and rearing of children.
Notwithstanding socialist or feminist critiques of power relationships and patriarchy within the family, there is of course some value in the Christian view, as it reflects the experience of millions of people, at least partially. That is why the churches campaigned for there to be a legal distinction between marriage and civil partnership. But the more mainstream view in secular modern Britain is that marriage is a formalisation of a loving bond between two people, who may or may not chose to have children; what is more many couples (with and without children) chose not to marry. If those whose religion prescribes marriage as only being between a man and a woman are entitled to their beliefs, then the rest of society is entitled to our belief to also recognise marriages of two men, or two women.
Indeed, there is a debate within some religious communities about whether the definition of marriage as only being between a man and a woman is something that reflects the social conditions of a previous era; and there is a debate within the Anglican communion that the church should solemnise civil partnerships. That is, while people may believe that scripture is of divine providence and is the word of God, there is still space to recognise that the recording of scripture and the mechanisms of its interpretation are social human activities, and therefore subject to revision.
There is a lot to unravel there; but the current arrangements have the following unfortunate (and deliberate) consequence: that there is a legal distinction between same gender partnerships, and heterosexual civil marriages.
The Equal Love campaign argues compellingly that there should be an end to the twin legal bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights Law at King’s College London, argues that as there are no significant differences in the rights and responsibilities involved in civil marriages and civil partnerships, there can be no justification for the segregation of gay and straight couples into two mutually exclusive legal systems. It is discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The government’s proposed new law is to equalise civil partnerships and civil marriages. There is no proposal whatsoever to interfere with the freedom of religious institutions to define marriage in whatever way they choose. So there is some irresponsible scare mongering from church groups, and the Tory right which could encourage homophobia.
So why is there so much controversy? Some church leaders, like the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, say that the government cannot define what marriage means. However, this argument was really lost as long ago as 1857 when the Matrimonial Causes Act legalised divorce; even though Christian churches could still refuse to acknowledge divorces and choose not to solemnise second marriages. This means that the state does already define marriage contrary to traditional Christian doctrine.
The opponents of marriage equality point out that currently both civil marriages and civil partnerships mirror the concept of monogamous romantic and sexual love derived from traditional religious marriage. Other loving and committed relationships, for example, between a parent and child, or between several people in a polyandrous relationship, cannot be solemnised by law. They argue that once marriage is redefined, then it could be redefined again to include other relationships. While religious institutions are entitled to argue this position, it is a question for the secular political authorities, democratically accountable to the electorate, to define civil marriage. Arguing against hypothetical future redefinitions is a red herring. Some campaigners against marriage equality, have used offensive and inflammatory language to denigrate the love and commitment of gay and lesbian couples. Undoubtedly some objections to marriage equality are simply homophobia. However it is also important that religious communities can define for themselves what they believe a marriage to be within their own faith community.
The dilemma for Cameron is that if he delayed legislation until after the next election, then both Labour and the Lib Dems would support mariiage equality; while the Tories might descend into civil war. It is an issue that could cost them an election. However in failing to carry his own party with him on the issue, Cameron will get none of the credit among social liberals for a progressive legisaltion that the Tories have introduced! It is a particularly unfortunate situation for Cameron, because there is a clear generational aspect to this issue, and in ten years gay marriage would face little opposition.