The truth about gay marriage: legally there is nothing to be gained
The law pertaining to same-sex relationships has come a long way. Until the Sexual Offences Act 1967, homosexual relationships were illegal. Until the Civil Partnership Act 2004, there was no way of formalising a homosexual relationship. The debate has now moved to the more intricate matters surrounding the nature of that formalisation, with many people now campaigning for a law which would allow gay marriage.
Before exploring the arguments relating to gay marriage, it is first necessary to understand the nature of a civil partnership. Under the Civil Partnership Act 2004, two people of the same sex can enter into a formalised union. Legally, that union brings with it all the rights and responsibilities of a heterosexual marriage. Heterosexual couples cannot enter into a civil partnership. In that way, a civil partnership is the equivalent of marriage for homosexual couples when viewed from a purely legal standpoint (one exception in some circumstances is the pension rights of the surviving person if a civil partner dies, compared to if a spouse dies).
At this point, some lawyers begin to lose interest in the debate surrounding this issue. Indeed, to look at the debates from a purely legal point of view, there is nothing to be gained from allowing gay marriage in that homosexual couples will not be able to gain any further rights or opportunities than they have at the moment.
However, this neglects two other important angles; a religious and a semantic angle.
The semantic angle is simple; although a civil partnership and a marriage legally constitute two entities which are the same in content of rights and entitlements, the fact that they have different nomenclature serves to accidentally disguise or deliberately obliterate their equality before the law. That a heterosexual couple can say that they are married, but that a homosexual couple can say that they are civil-partnered/civilly-partnered, puts a distinction between the two types of unions which is not there in legal content.
However, a distinction which is present is a religious one. Homosexual couples entering into a civil partnership cannot have their union blessed in a church, or celebrate it in a ceremony akin to a marriage. Heterosexual couples, meanwhile, may choose to have either only a civil, or both a civil and a religious, marriage ceremony.
For many religious people, whatever their sexuality, this inequality causes a deep discomfort: in a time when relationships are often shorter and less meaningful than they were in the past, and with marriage rates declining, it is hard to reconcile a rejection of brief and non-committed relationships with the refusal to recognise the value and validity of a deeply committed relationship simply because it is between two people of the same gender.
The Bill about to go through the Lords, however, does not address this issue: Ministers have already stated that legislation allowing same-sex marriages in England and Wales would not compel any religious organisation to conduct such marriages. The Church of England and the (Anglican) Church in Wales, among other religions, have stated their strong opposition to same-sex marriages. But they are not the only religious organisations to have done so. The legal ban may have the effect of protecting the Church of England from legal claims that as the Established Church it is bound to marry anyone who requests it.
But therefore, it seems that this Bill, for all the contention surrounding it, will achieve relatively little. Certainly, for large numbers of homosexual Christians, it will be no comfort to them that whilst their heterosexual friends can walk down the aisle in a place they may have worshipped all their life, met their partner at, or just liked the look of, those wishing to formalise an equally meaningful but homosexual relationship will be consigned to the Register Office for the foreseeable future, at least.
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