The UK has still not achieved absolute equality despite passing legislation allowing gay couples to marry, says Catherine Thomas.
As you may have seen in the newspapers recently, a UKIP councillor, David Silvester, has blamed the UK’s recent storms and floods on the Government's decision to legalise gay marriage, claiming that David Cameron had acted “arrogantly against the Gospel”. It seems that Silvester defected from the Tories to UKIP in protest at Mr Cameron's support for same sex marriage. We have been told that he wrote to the Henley Standard, his local newspaper, stating that a Christian nature that “abandons its faith” will be “beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war”, adding that it is Mr Cameron’s “fault” that the UK has been besieged by bad weather in recent times.
Whilst Silvester’s views may have been considered bizarre by many, they highlight the discriminatory views which still, regrettably, exist in modern Britain:
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (the “Act”) was given royal assent on 17 July 2013, despite opposition from many Conservatives. Same sex marriages will take place from 29 March of this year onwards. Those same sex couples who are already in civil partnerships will be able to convert their unions into marriages by the end of 2014.
In essence, the Act:
allows same sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies;
allows same sex couples to marry in religious ceremonies, where the religious organisation has ‘opted in’ to conduct such ceremonies and the minister of religion agrees;
protects those religious organisations and their representatives who don’t wish to conduct marriages of same sex couples from successful legal challenge;
enables civil partners to convert their partnership to a marriage, if they wish; and
enables married individuals to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage.
Not yet true equality?
The Act has received a huge amount of support as an important step towards equality for same sex couples, with many feeling that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 did not go far enough in this regard (allowing a legal union with nearly identical rights but providing an alternative label to marriage). There remain, however, those who consider that, once again, the Government has not gone far enough. Peter Tatchell, a human rights activist, is of this view, listing six reasons why he considers that true equality remains elusive.
Briefly, these are as follows:
1 Pension inheritance rights are fewer on the death of a same sex marriage spouse, in comparison to the legal rights of an opposite sex marriage spouse, because employers are only required by law to pay same sex survivor’s pensions (in occupational pension schemes) based on contributions made since 2005.
(The Act does, however, require a review of these differences. A report of the review will be published by 1 July of this year.)
2 There is no restoration of the marriages of trans-gender people that were annulled as a precondition for them securing a gender recognition certificate. Further, the spouse of a transgender person must consent to the marriage continuing after the issue of a gender recognition certificate.
3 Two of the existing grounds for the annulment of a marriage – non-consummation and adultery – do not apply in the case of same sex marriages. This is because the definition of sexual intercourse, and, as a result, of adultery, still refers to intercourse between a man and a woman.
4 The Church of England and the Church in Wales are explicitly banned from performing religious same sex marriages, even if they decide they want to.
5 The special requirements of registering premises for the conduct of religious same sex marriages are harsher than for opposite sex marriages in religious premises. In the case of shared premises, for instance, all other sharing faith organisations must provide their permission for the conduct of same sex marriages.
6 Straight couples continue to be unable to enter into a civil partnership, even though the Government’s public consultation on equal marriage found that 61 per cent of respondents supported the right of heterosexual couples to have a civil partnership, if they desire one, and only 24 per cent disagreed.
The third point was a particular failing of the Civil Partnership Act and it is saddening to see this is not being resolved by the 2013 Act.
For many, simply being allowed to actually “marry” may be more important than having identical legislation to opposite sex spouses. The Act is an important step towards attributing same sex couples the recognition and acceptance that they deserve, but it is still not absolute equality, which is an opportunity missed.