The coalition government has begun its consultation on equal marriage for gay people in England and Wales, after announcing it is already persuaded by the arguments in favour of same-sex civil marriage. This follows the Scottish Government’s own proposals last year in which it also gave its provisional support for equal rights to civil marriage in Scotland.
“I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative,” David Cameron said in a recent speech. “I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.”
Of course, Cameron’s soundbite will feed fears that the right to marry is a retrograde step for gay people that ignores the institution’s oppressive history and assimilationist power.
For many others, though, equal marriage will be welcomed for finally challenging the symbolic inequality in relationship recognition that has persisted in the UK since the Civil Partnership Act in 2004.
That the coalition and Scottish government are both broadly in favour of equal marriage marks a significant shift in UK gay politics. In particular, the consultation positions the coalition in direct opposition to extreme religious forces, especially a virulently homophobic Catholic church.
In practice the proposals if implemented will mean gay people will be able to get married and will not have to “out” themselves every time they announce their status as a civil partnership. It will also ensure that trans people in a heterosexual marriage will no longer be expected to divorce and form a new civil partnership in order to receive a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC).
But sadly the consultation paper is a mess. Rather than reflecting an unequivocal commitment to equality it represents instead an effort at compromise that borders on incoherence.
The first problem relates to the coalition’s views regarding the future of civil partnerships after equal marriage. It is proposed that civil partnerships should be retained for gay couples even after the right to form a civil marriage is extended to them.
On one hand this is both welcome and more radical than expected. It offers gay people the option to “opt out” of marriage altogether, while also giving them the right to marry if they wish, which may be attractive to those couples with understandable objections to marriage as an institution.
But the coalition government has refused to consider the arguments for opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples too. In other words, it proposes that heterosexuals should enjoy less choice of partnership formation than gay people under this new model of relationship recognition.
Almost certainly, the government’s resistance to opening civil partnership to straights as a well as gays – as advocated by Peter Tatchell’s Equal Love campaign – derives from an underlying fear that heterosexuals may well reject the institution of marriage en masse in favour of civil partnerships.
The government proposes also that same-sex marriages should not be permitted on religious premises. This is the case even though the right to hold civil partnership ceremonies on religious premises was only recently won in December 2011 on the instruction of the coalition itself.
To refuse to permit same sex marriages on religious premises ignores the primary argument used previously to defend the right to hold civil partnerships in religious settings: that it is not simply an issue of gay equality but necessary to protect the freedoms of gay-friendly religious groups.
While the government emphasises throughout its consultation paper that many religions remain opposed to same-sex marriage at no point is attention drawn to the growing number of religious groups – such as the Quakers – which now wish to oversee the formation of gay marriages in the UK.
The coalition’s position suggests an underlying anxiety about offending the religious lobby, which belies the coalition’s apparent commitment to gay equality.
Conversely, the Scottish Government’s proposals in this area demonstrate greater commitment to gay equality and more coherence overall. At present it remains open to the argument that both civil and religious gay marriages should be recognised by Scottish law. If so, it would not only be permitted for Scottish gay marriage to take place on religious premises, but they could also be solemnised by religious ritual (something still banned currently in relation to civil partnerships taking place on religious premises across the UK).
There are potential problems with recognising religious marriage that the Scottish Government will need to iron out, especially whether individual religious celebrants should be prohibited from solemnising same-sex marriages if their religious body does not recognise them.
However, the fact that the Scottish Government is willing to entertain the prospect of permitting religious solemnisation suggests a far more robust approach to gay equality and religious freedom than that displayed by the coalition.
So while the coalition might be praised for its new commitment to equal civil marriage, the devil is very much in the detail. The proposals as they stand offer important new rights to gay people, but they will also embed new and unnecessary inequalities. In short: a good effort, but must try harder.