Comment: Gay marriage proposals are welcome but flawed

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Writing after the launch of the government’s public consultation on how best to introduce civil marriage equality for gays, Peter Tatchell argues that the proposed changes are a welcome move, but they will still discriminate and hinder religious freedom.

While we welcome the commitment to legalise same-sex civil marriages, we are unhappy that the government intends to maintain the ban on heterosexual civil partnerships and the ban on religious same-sex marriages, even if faith organisations wish to conduct them. This is not equality. It perpetuates discrimination.

We are concerned that the Equalities Minister is unwilling to end the ban on heterosexual civil partnerships. True equality means allowing gay couples to have a civil marriage and straight couples to have a civil partnership.

Under government proposals, gay couples will have two options: a civil marriage or a civil partnership. Straight couples will only have the option of a civil marriage. Maintaining this discrimination against heterosexual partners is unacceptable.

Both civil marriages and civil partnerships should be opened up to all couples, without discrimination based on sexual orientation.

We believe there are a sizeable number of heterosexual couples who would prefer a civil partnership, on the grounds that it is more modern, egalitarian and has none of the patriarchal history of marriage. In the Netherlands, where both civil marriages and civil partnerships have been open to all couples for a decade, two-thirds of civil partnerships involve heterosexual men and women. If UK civil partnerships were open to heterosexual couples we would expect a similar take up.

The issue of straight civil partnerships is not one that the LGBT community can ignore. Having fought for equality for decades, it would be very wrong for us to ignore discrimination against our straight families and friends. They deserve equality too.

I am disappointed that Stonewall and the Coalition for Equal Marriage do not support the right of heterosexual couples to have a civil partnership. It looks self-centred and selfish. We asked for straight support in the battle for LBGT equal rights. Many heterosexuals are campaigning with us for marriage equality. We should now reciprocate their support by backing the right of straight couples to have a civil partnership if they wish.

The government has announced that it will maintain the ban on religious same-sex marriages, even if faith organisations wish to conduct them. The Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism want to perform same-sex marriages. The current law says they can’t.

The government plans to maintain this prohibition. This is not only homophobic but also an attack on religious freedom. While no religious body should be forced to conduct same-sex marriages, those that want to conduct them should be free to do so.

Having last year allowed religious organisations to host civil partnerships in places of worship, it seems inconsistent to now deny religions the option of hosting same-sex marriages.

Peter Tatchell is director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and coordinator of the Equal Love campaign which seeks to overturn the twin bans on gay marriages and straight civil partnerships and allow religious organisations to gay marriages if they choose.