British government looks towards introducing gay marriage equality

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The British government has admitted that there is an imbalance between civil partnerships and civil marriage and is actively examining ways of addressing this.

  • Religious civil partnerships will be permitted
  • ‘Consultation’ on marriage equality
  • understands opening up marriage and civil partnerships to all is the government’s preferred option
  • Campaigners criticise ‘painfully slow’ progress

Ministers will announce today that a consultation will be held on the “next steps” for recognition of gay couples. understands that the government’s preferred option is to eventually open civil marriage and civil partnerships to all couples, whether straight or gay.

Last February, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg wrote on “I support gay marriage. Love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same, too. All couples should be able to make that commitment to one another.” Marriage equality was later adopted as official party policy.

The official government press release includes a call by the Quakers for full marriage equality, which government sources pointed to as implicit official support for this position.

No timetable for the consultation has been announced. Gay rights campaigners criticised the “painfully slow” progress on marriage.

The home secretary will also announce plans to allow civil partnerships to be held in religious buildings.

Churches will not be forced to hold civil partnerships, a clause in the Equality Act stresses. The provision and proposals to widen the definition of marriage apply only to England and Wales. The governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland will consider these issues separately.

Legislative changes are required for religious civil partnerships but it is understood that the law could change by the end of the year. The measure, in the Equality Act, has already been approved by MPs and Lords. understands that the Liberal Democrats in government and increasingly Tories in the centre – including David Cameron – are minded towards full marriage equality.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is currently pursuing the issue at the European Court of Human Rights. It is understood that the Liberal Democrats were uneasy at the prospect of the coalition government fighting against gay marriage in such a public way given that introducing gay marriage is official party policy.

Home Secretary Theresa May said the government was “committed to both advancing equality for LGB and T people and ensuring freedom of religion for people of all faiths”.

“No religious group will be forced to host a civil partnership registration, but for those who wish to do so this is an important step forward,” she said.

Equality minister Lynne Featherstone said: “Over the past few months I’ve spoken to a lot of LGB and T people and campaign groups, and it quickly became clear that there is a real desire to address the differences between civil marriage and civil partnerships.

“I’m delighted to announce that we are going to be the first British government to formally look at what steps can be taken to address this.”

The three faiths pushing for the change are Quakers, Liberal and from today Reform Jews as well as Unitarians. In a Home Office statement, the Quakers said they were “heartened” by calls for full marriage equality.

Michael Hutchinson, for Quakers in Britain, said: “Quakers warmly welcome the move to allow the celebration of civil partnerships on religious premises.

“We are also heartened by proposals to address calls for full equality of civil marriages and civil partnerships, as our religious experience leads us to seek a change in the law so that same sex marriages can be celebrated, witnessed and reported to the state in the same way as heterosexual marriages.”

The inclusion of this view on a Home Office statement suggests implicit support for it.

Stonewall executive Ben Summerskill welcomed the announcement on civil partnerships but questioned the government’s commitment to gay marriage.

He said: “If there’s a genuine commitment to making progress in this area, it is painfully slow. Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has explicitly said she would consult on proposals the government intends to implement in the lifetime of this parliament.

“If that is to happen by 2015, then consultation should begin now.”

The gay charity did not declare its support of gay marriage until November, just shy of the fifth anniversary of civil partnerships.

Stonewall does not support full marriage equality and Mr Summerskill said in September that allowing straight people to have civil partnerships would cost £5 billion in lost tax revenue.

Peter Tatchell hit out at the coalition government’s “spineless” decision not to announce full marriage equality and accused ministers of “kicking the issue into the long grass”.

He said: “The government could have taken a bold new initiative to ensure that both straight and gay couples have the option of marriage.

“But by not allowing gays to marry, this government has failed those many LGBT people for whom civil partnerships is just not enough.”

A recent poll of 800 readers found that 98 per cent wanted the right to marry. Seventy-seven per cent agreed that marriage and civil partnerships should be open to everyone, while 23 per cent said that marriage should be the only form of recognition for all couples.

A Populus opinion poll for the Times in June 2009 found that 61 per cent of the public believe that ‘gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships’. Only 33 per cent disagreed.

Today, the Movement for Reform Judaism announced that it would host same sex ceremonies.

Natalie Grazin, a member of the Keshet UK, the LGBT Jewish forum, welcomed the ability to add religious elements into civil partnerships. She told “My partner and I held a civil partnership on the first day it was possible but we’d actually held our Jewish ceremony earlier in the year. Although we got to enjoy wearing our wedding dresses twice, it would have been fantastic to have been allowed to incorpate religious elements in the day.”