The first time I met my partner’s aunt, she waited until he was out of earshot and asked, ‘So do I need to buy a hat?’
She is not what you’d expect a supporter of marriage equality to be – a working class mother of three from Merseyside, not an obvious ally at first glance.
But she is passionate about her family, and she looks out for my partner like another son, as his father (her brother) is half a world away in Sydney and she feels protective of him like any caring parent would. She was doing what a good mother does, and checking if my intentions were honourable in the way she knew how, by asking if we planned to marry.
She has seen how my partner is happier now he can be open about himself and we can be there for each other with the support of our families. Many people who can see the impact of these issues on those whom they love are more likely to be supportive.
Despite what some opponents of marriage equality say, there does appear to be growing popular support for the fact that two people (who happen to be of the same sex) can love each other and be in a committed relationship, which deserves public support and affirmation.
Yesterday the UK Government published its response to a consultation on plans to implement equal civil marriage in England and Wales. They received more than 228,000 responses from individuals and organisations, the largest response ever received to a Government consultation, highlighting that this is an important issue to a great many people.
Of the 228,000 responses, 53% agreed that all couples, regardless of their gender should be able to have a civil marriage ceremony, and 46% disagreed. Not a resounding majority, but enough to convince the Government they have a mandate to proceed with a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry or to ‘convert’ their civil partnership in an optional service akin to renewal of vows.
Some opposition to the proposals is likely to be eroded due to lack of substance. For example, some opponents argue that not all gay people want to marry, so the ‘vocal minority’ should not be indulged at the expense of the ‘moral majority’. But not all straight couples wish to marry, and that’s not a valid argument for saying none of them should be allowed to.
The consultation responses show that, of the 137,000 respondents who answered at least one of the other specific questions, those who believed that all couples, regardless of their gender should be able to have a civil marriage ceremony included:
- 99% of those who identified as lesbian or gay
- 77% of those who identified as heterosexual or straight
- 96% of those who identified as transgender
- 98% of respondents who stated they were of no religion
- 72% of respondents who stated they were Christian
Not such a minority as opponents make out.
Some also argue that gay people are more likely to be promiscuous and have short-term relationships. While it may be true for some, this ignores the fact that many gay couples have already been together for years and are now seeking the social and legal affirmation that marriage provides. It also overlooks the fact that straight people, whose relationships receive more universal social and legal support, are also capable of being promiscuous and unfaithful, and divorce rates are increasing.
Some say marriage equality will undermine the institution of marriage. I respectfully suggest that anyone who feels their relationship is threatened by a gay couple who are in love wanting to marry, perhaps they shouldn’t be getting married either.
But the Government’s new recommendations went further than expected.
The consultation proposed that religious organisations would be banned from conducting marriages for same-sex couples. Of the 96% who responded:
- 27% said religious marriage ceremonies should not be available to same-sex couples
- 63% said religious marriage ceremonies should be available to same-sex couples.
So the Government clearly feels there is enough popular support to extend religious same-sex marriage to those couples and faith groups that want it. It also offers legal reassurances to those faith communities that do not, despite the fact that the consultation made clear that no religious organisation or its ministers would be forced to conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, which is already guaranteed under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and in Strasbourg case-law.
The proposal to appease religious opponents is a ‘quadruple lock’ of additional measures ‘to put this position utterly beyond doubt’:
- ensuring the legislation states explicitly that no religious organisation, or individual minister, can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises;
- providing an ‘opt-in’ system for religious organisations who wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples;
- amending the Equality Act 2010 to reflect that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple or allowing their premises to be used for this purpose;
- ensuring that the Church of England or the Church in Wales cannot conduct same-sex marriages without a future change in its own canon law and amendment to proposed Government legislation.
So, religious organisations that want to conduct marriages for same-sex couples could ‘opt-in’, and would be under no obligation to do so. It would remain unlawful for an individual place of worship belonging to that faith to marry same-sex couples without the agreement of its governing body. For the Church of England, this means that no minister who is in favour of same-sex marriage in their church could conduct such a service, until the Church’s General Synod accepts it, which is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Although the Government intends this to offer greater legal protection to the Church of England, it does put the established Church in direct opposition with Government policy, which some argue increases the risk of legal challenge, even of the loss of its privileged status as the state Church through disestablishment.