The Government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has now been published with the second Reading on Tuesday 5 February, which will be the first opportunity MPs have to debate and vote on the Bill. It’s a hefty piece of reading at 56 pages and even the explanatory notes are 49 pages long. If you want to read a concise and helpful summary I would recommend looking at Law and Religion UK’s blog post on it. There’s nothing new in the bill that hasn’t already been made public, but there are however a few anomalies presented that highlight some of the difficulties that this bill causes. These include:
- Heterosexual couples will only be allowed to marry whilst same-sex couples will have the choice of either marriage or a civil partnership.
- If a same-sex married couple move to Scotland or Northern Ireland their marriage will only be recognised as a civil partnership.
- If one member of a heterosexual marriage changes their gender the marriage will be allowed to continue (which is the opposite to the case at present), but civil partnerships will not be able to continue unless both partners change sex simultaneously.
- Only heterosexual couples can divorce on grounds of adultery and the adultery must take place between two people of different sexes.
- Only heterosexual marriages can be annulled due to non-consummation.
The Government has done its best to ensure the Churches of England and Wales cannot be challenged for refusing to carry out same-sex weddings, but this does not resolve the issue for other denominations or faiths. For example, local congregations of Baptist churches are self-governing and may potentially decide to allow same-sex marriages to be conducted, but Baptist Union Accredited Ministers are not permitted to publicly endorse same-sex relationships and could face disciplinary action if they did.
The big question is why heterosexual couples will not be allowed to enter into a civil partnership or alternatively why any new same-sex civil partnerships need to take place. It will be interesting to see what the courts make of this if anyone challenges it. My main concern right from the beginning with same-sex marriage was not that gay people should be allowed to marry per se. After all many people now refer to partners in civil partnerships as husbands and wives and civil partnerships have equal legal standing alongside marriage as it stands. My big gripe alongside many others is that whereas having both civil partnerships and marriage allow for the mostly biological differences between the two types of relationships to be accommodated effectively, trying to merge the two into one single amorphous new thing still called marriage doesn’t get away from the fact that different rules have to be created within marriage depending on the gender make-up of the relationship. Reading through the notes I end up with as many questions as I find answers.
There are various other concerns that still need to be addressed in more detail, many of which were covered in the Church of England’s press statement on the bill:
“For the Church of England, in common with other denominations and faiths, one central test of this Bill is whether it will preserve and guarantee religious practice and religious conscience. We recognise that the Government has sought hard to do so in the drafting, but as the legislative process continues we shall wish to press serious questions about the implications for wider society, for the significance of procreation and upbringing of children as part of the purpose of marriage, the effect on teaching in schools, and the work of chaplains and others with religious convictions who are involved in public service delivery.
“We have also continued to raise questions about whether it is wise or appropriate to legislate at speed on a matter of such fundamental importance to society, when the proposal was not in any major party manifesto, the Coalition Agreement or the last Queen’s Speech. The lack of a clear mandate and the absence of an overwhelming public consensus for change ought at least to give pause for thought.”
In trying to unite marriage and civil partnerships, it’s as if the Government has taken a bottle containing both water and oil and given it a thorough shake trying to mix them together. If you shake hard enough, it may give the impression that it works, but if you look closely you’ll see that they’re still separate and the longer you look at it the more obvious it becomes. No matter how much you believe in equality it doesn’t overcome the fact that we’re not all the same and the Government’s attempt to shoehorn all of us into the same box, whilst the intentions may be well meaning, is only causing more problems than it solves.