When I first heard that the news that the government is planning to legislate for same-sex marriage, I was very pleased. Then I looked at the details. Now I’m very disappointed.
The first problem is the time frame. Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone has said that the government will begin a consultation next year, with the aim of changing the law by 2015. Of course, it will take time to go over details and make sure the legislation is right. But I can’t believe that it has to take four years, when the momentum for same-sex marriage has been building up rapidly and polls show the majority of the UK population to be in favour of it.
It seems that the coalition can rush through cuts, change benefits and treble tuition fees with barely a moment’s hesitation. Any progressive measure seems to take years (as we’ve already seen with ministers’ approach to banking reform).
The timing of Lynne Featherstone’s announcement is suspicious to say the least. As the Liberal Democrat conference begins, the party’s leaders are no doubt afraid of grassroots anger at their collusion with a Tory agenda. I have said for some time that if same-sex marriage is introduced soon, it is likely to be offered as a sop to the LibDems. Clearly, Clegg and his colleagues are hoping to show that they have some influence within the coalition.
Given how little influence the LibDems seem to have in practice, this gives me serious doubts about the likelihood of the measure ever being introduced at all. The government has already delayed the implementation of a clause in last year’s Equality Act that allows religious elements in civil partnerships.
The second problem concerns the role of religion in the government’s proposals. They are suggesting that same-sex marriage should be recognised only if it takes place in a civil ceremony. This is blatantly discriminatory. A mixed-sex couple will be able to choose between a religious and a civil marriage, while a same-sex couple will not.
Of course, faith groups that do not believe in same-sex marriage should not be obliged to carry them out (and almost nobody is suggesting that they should, despite the scaremongering claims regularly heard in some quarters). But religious groups who uphold same-sex marriage should have the same legal rights relating to them as they do for mixed-sex marriages.
Several such groups have already committed themselves: Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews, the Metropolitan Community Church. There are calls within the Baptist Union of Great Britain for individual Baptist churches to be able to make up their own minds on the subject. And the United Reformed Church will be debating the question next year.
For some religious groups, the issue is different because they have limited rights to perform marriages anyway. Marriage law in the UK is a real mess. Not only do mixed-sex couples have different rights to same-sex couples,but the Church of England has more rights than other Christian groups, while most-non Christian groups have less. Jews and Quakers have the right to solemnise their own marriages because of a law passed in 1753.
This is ridiculous. We need a thorough overhaul of marriage law. Ekklesia has long suggested separating the religious and legal elements. This would allow people to go through a ceremony with personal, social and – if important to them – religious significance, but legal registration would be a separate procedure (perhaps involving form-filling rather than ceremonies).
I accept that a consultation on how to overhaul marriage law could well take years. Legislating for same-sex marriage should not. Surely we simply need to remove any description of gender from marriage law, with the added provision that no religious group should be obliged to carry out a ceremony they don’t believe in.
That shouldn’t be too difficult, should it? Not, that is, if we had a government with the political will to implement it. Sadly, we don’t.