One year ago today, four gay couples and four heterosexual couples, sponsored by the Equal Love campaign, filed a historic joint appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Their appeal argues that Britain’s twin legal bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships amount to illegal discrimination, contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. The bans violate Articles 8, 12 and 14 – respectively the right to privacy and family life, the right to marry and the right to non-discrimination.
The 31-page application, drafted by Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights Law at King’s College London, presents a compelling case. Since there are no significant differences in the rights and responsibilities involved in civil marriages and civil partnerships, there can be no justification for the segregation of gay and straight couples into two mutually exclusive legal systems. It is discrimination based on sexual orientation. For this reason, we are hopeful that when the ECHR eventually delivers a judgement, probably in 2014, it will be in favour of equality.
Soon after the ECHR appeal was filed, the government announced its intention to consult on the issue of same-sex marriage. Mere coincidence? Perhaps. But the government was surely mindful that it will be required to explain to the ECHR its rationale for excluding gay couples from civil marriages and heterosexual couples from civil partnerships. It can now report to the ECHR that it is consulting. This consultation is, however, flawed. It is limited to same-sex marriage.
David Cameron mistakenly calculated that we’ll be satisfied with marriage equality. We won’t. So long as heterosexual couples remain banned from civil partnerships, which is the Prime Minister’s apparent intention, the Equal Love campaign will continue. We believe in straight equality just as passionately as we care about equal rights for lesbians and gay men.
In our estimation, there is a sizeable minority of heterosexual couples who would prefer a civil partnership. They dislike the patriarchal history and language of marriage; viewing civil partnerships as a more modern, egalitarian alternative. In the Netherlands, where civil partnerships are open to both gay and heterosexual couples, two-thirds of civil partners are straight men and women. We could expect a similar take-up by heterosexual couples in Britain, if civil partnerships were open to everyone.
Cameron also miscalculated by ruling out any legalisation of religious same-sex marriages, even by faith organisations, such as the Quakers and Unitarians, who want to conduct them. This is an attack on religious freedom, as well as perpetrating homophobic discrimination. Moreover, given that the government has recently authorised religious same-sex civil partnerships, a continued blanket ban on religious same-sex marriages looks inconsistent and petty.
For all these reasons, the Equal Love campaign is building momentum. The right of gay couples to marry is backed by David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson and a growing number of Tory MPs, including Chloe Smith, Mike Weatherley and Margot James.
In 2010, the Green Party national conference was the first to vote to end the twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. It was followed by the Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru conferences. Oddly, the Labour conference has declined to vote on the issue; although the GMB, Unison and all 13 Labour MEPs want the twin bans overturned.
The SNP government in Scotland is leading the way, with its public consultation period already concluded; while David Cameron inexplicably postponed the start of his consultation from last summer to next month.
Some people argue: what’s there to consult about? Homophobic discrimination is wrong and should therefore be abolished pronto. Would the government have a long drawn out consultation about repealing racist laws? I doubt it. It would immediately abolish them on the grounds that they were incompatible with a democratic society. Why should homophobic bans be treated any differently?
The public is on our side. A Populus poll in 2009 found that 61% of the public believe: “Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships.” Only 33% disagreed. It’s likely that there is similar support for heterosexual civil partnerships.
What’s the government waiting for? The time for equality is now.
This article first appeared in the Guardian.