Same sex marriages

This month MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. The Bill allows for gay couples to enjoy exactly the same rights and privileges as straight couples, should they choose to marry. Not without its dissenters, mostly Conservative MPs, the Bill has been approved on its second reading; the legislation will be passed if it is approved on the third reading and then by the House of Lords.

Following the Civil Partnership Act that came into force in this country in 2004, the reason for this extra provision may not be clear. The 2004 legislation allowed for same sex couples to form a legal union, in the form of Civil Partnership, by recognising the pair as a legal couple. Prior to the CPA only heterosexual married couples had the benefit of spousal pension rights, property rights of the marital home, rights to the inheritance of a deceased spouse and next of kin rights.

Whilst the CPA provided these, the distinction between married couples and civil partners was considered to be discriminatory by campaigners for gay marriage. Reasons cited were that marriage is a recognised status internationally, unlike civil partnership, and that civil partnership lacks the validity of marriage. The major difference was that a gay couple could not have a religious ceremony and be considered ‘married’.

The new Bill proposes to give religious institutions the choice to offer gay marriage. It would allow them to opt in or out of the Bill. In order to safeguard the right of churches and other religious institutions, there is a proposition to amend the 2012 Equality Act to prevent legal claims against those who choose to ‘opt out’. Without this provision, there is a danger that the new legalisation could leave churches vulnerable to discrimination claims brought by gay couples the church has refused to marry.

Certainly there is still much opposition for the Bill.

The main opposition for the changes comes from those arguing that marriage is the union between a man and a woman which cannot be replicated by two people of the same sex. This is the definition of marriage by the Church of England. Based on this understanding, it would be inconsistent with the religion for Church of England to offer marriage to same sex couples. The Bill therefore proposes to make it unlawful for Church of England to offer gay marriage. This will further protect the Church’s legal position.

In Spain gay marriage has been legal for several years. As recently as this week, France followed suit by voting in favour of a similar bill. The new Bill seems, therefore, to be a shift in the same direction as much of Europe.