Peter Tatchell: The equal marriage consultation is not good enough

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Equality minister Lynne Featherstone has announced that the government’s consultation on gay marriage is postponed until March 2012, and that its terms of reference will explicitly exclude same-sex religious marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships.

It is bizarre that the minister for equality wants to maintain the discriminatory laws that prohibit gay couples from having a religious marriage and heterosexual couples from having a civil partnership. She sounds more like the minister for inequality.

Lynne Featherstone is mean-spirited to rule out in advance any discussion on opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. I stand for equality and this includes equality for straight people too. It would be wrong for the LGBT community to demand equal rights for ourselves and then ignore or accept the denial of equality to heterosexual people. In a democracy we should all be equal before the law.

There are many opposite-sex couples who would like a civil partnership. For the government to deny them this option is unfair – and illegal under human rights law. How can the equality minister support this discrimination?

France and the Netherlands have an equivalent to civil partnerships, respectively PACS and registered partnerships. They are open to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The vast majority of civil partnerships in these countries are heterosexual ones. They are hugely popular there and would be equally popular here, if the government allowed straight couples to have them. To deny British heterosexuals the option of a civil partnership is profoundly unjust.

The government’s proposed continuation of the ban on gay religious marriages is another surprise. It is an infringement of religious freedom to dictate to faith organisations that they cannot carry out weddings for same-sex partners, especially since the government has already agreed to lift a similar ban on same-sex religious civil partnerships. Some religions – such as the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism – want to conduct same-sex marriages. The equality minister says they will not be allowed to do so. While no religious body should be forced to perform gay or lesbian marriages, the government should give them the option and let them decide. It is time for legislation to end the legal prohibition on same-sex weddings conducted by faith organisations.

The consultation on gay marriage was supposed to begin in June this year. There is no excuse for postponing it until March next year. Why can’t it start now? In fact, why do we need any consultation at all? The ban on same-sex marriage is homophobic discrimination and should be repealed immediately.

No other government legislation is being subjected to such prolonged consultation. The Scottish government’s consultation on marriage equality began earlier this month. Why is the UK government dragging its feet?

If Muslim or Jewish people had been banned from marriage, the government would act swiftly to end such discrimination. There would be no long drawn out consultation period. Why the double standards?

Ending sexual orientation discrimination in marriage law is the right thing to do and it has majority public support. There is no reason for the government to delay. According to a 2009 Populous opinion poll, 61 per cent of the public believe that lesbian and gay couples should be allowed to get married.

Despite the government’s assurances, there is a serious danger that the delay will prevent marriage equality being passed before the next election. Because the consultation will not begin until March 2012, it is unlikely that legislation will be presented to parliament before mid-2013. Allowing for obstruction by the House of Lords, it is doubtful that it would be passed before late 2014, which is perilously close to the deadline for the next election. If the prime minister called an early poll, the legislation would fall.

This begs the question: is the consultation fanfare an attempt to take the heat off the government while effectively kicking same-sex marriage into the long grass?

Lynne Featherstone’s announcement is clearly an attempt to thwart the Equal Love legal case in the European Court of Human Rights, where four gay couples and four heterosexual couples are seeking to overturn sexual orientation discrimination in civil marriage and civil partnership law.

The minister won’t succeed. We are confident that the government’s decision to retain the prohibition on opposite-sex civil partnerships will be ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. Please think again Lynne Featherstone.