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Topics In the News
UK Marriage Equality Consultation Begins
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/12/12
Last updated on: 03/12/12
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Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron endorsing same-sex marriage.

In preparation for introducing legislation to permit same-sex marriage, the government of the United Kingdom will begin its long-awaited "consultation" on marriage equality this week. The consultation will seek the views of interested parties and members of the public as to how to make civil marriage available to same-sex couples.

At the annual conference of the U.K.'s Conservative Party on October 5, 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron forthrightly endorsed same-sex marriage as a matter of conservative principle and promised to begin the process of making it a reality.

Cameron announced, "We're consulting on legalizing gay marriage. To anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it's about equality, but it's also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative."

Cameron's government, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, announced plans to introduce legislation establishing marriage equality before the next general election, which is scheduled for 2015.

In December 2011, Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone declared, "I am delighted to confirm that early next year, this government will begin a formal consultation on equal civil marriage for same-sex couples. This would allow us to make any legislative changes before the end of this Parliament. We will be working closely with all those who have an interest in the area to understand their views ahead of the formal consultation."

Opponents of same-sex marriage have not been hesitant in making their opposition known. For example, In January, John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, compared Prime Minister Cameron to a dictator, saying that the passage of equal marriage rights laws is equivalent to the actions of a dictator.

In somewhat milder terms, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior official of the Church of England, also announced his opposition to marriage equality, saying that the Anglican Communion would oppose legislation to authorize same-sex marriage.

Most provocatively, the most senior Catholic in Scotland, Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O'Brien, described gay marriage as "madness," a "grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right." He suggested that same-sex marriage would lead to three-way marriages, and compared the government's support for equality to legalizing slavery.

Echoing talking points frequently used by American opponents of same-sex marriage, O'Brien predictably declared that the purpose of marriage is procreation; that permitting same-sex marriage will destabilize the family; and that "Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society."

The Roman Catholic primate for England and Wales, the Archbishop of Westminster, has ordered a letter to be read to congregations at Mass this weekend telling followers they have a "duty" to "ensure" gays should not be allowed to marry even in civil ceremonies.

The letter urges Catholics to support the Coalition for Marriage, an effort to oppose marriage equality led by the heads of anti-gay Evangelicals, including the homophobic Christian Institute.

A poll sponsored by the Catholic Church, and immediately debunked by others, purported to show that 70% of Britons oppose same-sex marriage. In contrast, mainstream pollsters have shown that a large plurality of the public supports same-sex marriage.

Not all clerics are opposed to same-sex marriage. Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal and Reformed Judaism, among others, have endorsed same-sex marriage. Even within the Church of England, some prominent clerics have announced their support.

For example, the Very Reverend David Ison, the newly appointed Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, recently indicated his support for marriage equality. He said, "We need to take seriously people's desire for partnership and make sure that the virtues that you see in married relationships are available to people who are gay."

"I'm encouraged that a good number of gay people want to take on the virtues of marriage," he added. "For Christian gay people to model that kind of faithfulness, in a culture which, historically, has often been about promiscuity, is a very good thing to do."

Despite the official opposition of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and many Evangelical groups, marriage equality is expected to fare well in the consultation process and ultimately become law.

The leaders of the three major parties, the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats, support marriage equality. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Catholic convert, recently announced his support for same-sex marriage, as did former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the leader of the Scottish Parliament, Alex Salmond. Even the Murdoch-owned conservative newspaper, The Times (London), forcefully editorialized in favor of marriage equality.

Currently, same-sex couples are permitted to register their relationships as civil partnerships, which have been available since December 2005. A civil partnership provides same-sex partners virtually all of the rights and obligations of married heterosexual couples, including automatic legal recognition as next of kin, inheritance, and pension rights.

The most significant differences between civil partnerships and marriages are religious. In deference to the Church of England's opposition to same-sex marriage, the government made civil partnership an entirely secular process and even restricted the places where civil partnerships could be executed to non-religious venues.

Cameron's government has recently relaxed some of the religious restrictions on civil partnerships. For example, religious denominations and groups will soon be allowed, at their discretion, to host and participate in civil partnership ceremonies just as they do marriages.

The main objection to civil partnerships by most glbtq people, including activists such as Peter Tatchell, is that separate legal classifications are inherently unequal.

Cameron's plan to upgrade civil partnerships to marriage is thus an attempt to grant glbtq citizens full equality under the law in the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, the current consultation will consider ways of introducing civil marriage to same-sex couples, but it will not include consultation of civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples.

Below is a video clip of Cameron's speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on October 5, 2011 in which he declares his support of same-sex marriage as a conservative principle.

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