Comment: Why does the equality minister oppose marriage equality? by Peter Tatchell

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Bravo to the Liberal Democrat party conference. A year ago, party members voted overwhelmingly to end the twin legal bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. They committed the Lib Dems would work in government to scrap sexual orientation discrimination in marriage and partnership law. Well done. Thank you

Sadly, the Lib Dem equality minister, Lynne Featherstone, apparently with the support of the Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is now actively backing discrimination. She plans to keep unequal laws, contrary to the Lib Dem’s election pledges.

Specifically, Lynne is vowing to retain the prohibition on heterosexual civil partnerships and on religious same-sex marriages by faith organisations that want to conduct them. This is in direct defiance of what her party members voted for: equality.

Nick Clegg has not dissented from her stance. We can only assume that he endorses it.

Lynne is lovely. I like her as a person. However, she has announced a long and unjustified delay in the government’s promised consultation on civil marriage and civil partnership; pre-empting the consultation findings by ruling out straight and religious equality.

She said at the start of this year that the consultation would begin in June. Then she postponed it until October. Now it has been put off until March next year. Why can’t the consultation start now? Despite all our requests, Lynne has failed to explain why this delay is necessary.

I am not persuaded that there needs to be any consultation at all. The ban on same-sex marriage is homophobic discrimination and should therefore be repealed immediately.

If black or Jewish people had been banned from marriage, the government would act swiftly to ensure marriage equality. There would be no long drawn out consultation period. There would be no appeasement of racists and anti-Semites. Why the double standards?

No other government legislation is being subjected to such prolonged consultation and repeated postponements.

The Scottish government has not hesitated. Its consultation on marriage and partnership equality is already underway. Why is the UK Equality Minister dragging her feet and delaying her consultation until next spring? It doesn’t make sense.

The Westminster government has promised to legislate marriage equality before the date of the next election, due by May 2015 at the latest. However, the delayed consultation could result in the measure not completing its parliamentary progress in time. Likely resistance by the House of Lords might result in its being timed out. Is this deliberate?

Ending sexual orientation discrimination in marriage law is not only the right thing to do, it has majority public support. There is, therefore, no reason for the government to delay in bringing forward legislation to end this legal iniquity.

Nearly two-thirds of the public support marriage equality. According to a 2009 Populous opinion poll, 61% of the public say that lesbian and gay couples should be allowed by law to get married:

Lynne Featherstone’s gay marriage consultation announcement looks like an attempt to head off the Equal Love legal case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

In February, four gay couples and four heterosexual couples filed an application in the ECHR to overturn sexual orientation discrimination in civil marriage and civil partnership law.

Speaking as the appeal coordinator, I can say we are quietly confident that we will win the case – eventually (an ECHR ruling can take four years).

The current UK ban on straight couples having a civil partnership is clear discrimination. Lynne’s commitment to maintain this inequality is both surprising and shocking. It is wrong for her to exclude in advance any discussion about 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 heterosexuals who would like a civil partnership. To deny them this option is very unfair – and it is illegal under human rights law. How can a Lib Dem Equality Minister support inequality?

The Netherlands has an equivalent to civil partnerships. Called registered partnerships, they are open to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The vast majority of Dutch civil partnerships are heterosexual ones. They are hugely popular and would be equally popular in the UK, if the government allowed straight couples to have them. To deny British heterosexuals the option of a civil partnership is profoundly wrong and unjust.

This is bad enough. However, Lynne has also ruled that her consultation will not consider the option of ending the ban on religious marriages for lesbian and gay couples, even though some faith organisations – such as the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews – have requested that they should be allowed to marry same-sex partners. Lynne says no. She says the ban must stay. This is a violation of religious freedom. While no religious body should be forced to perform same-sex marriages, those that support gay marriage should not be barred by law from doing so.

I appeal to Lynne – and Nick Clegg – to rethink this ill-considered consultation timetable and its pro-discrimination parameters – to both ensure non-discrimination and to avoid an embarrassing defeat in the European Court of Human Rights.

It is outrageous that the Equality Minister wants to maintain the unequal, discriminatory laws that bar gay religious marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. Her stance is not compatible with her professed Liberal Democrat values or with the wishes of the vast majority of Lib Dem party members.

This article was first published on Lib Dem Voice.

Former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris defended Lynne Featherstone in a separate article.