CONSERVATIVE Christian groups accused the Government of attempting to “redefine” marriage this week, after it said that it would consult on introducing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Gay-rights campaigners said that the proposals did not go far enough, and should include same-sex religious marriages and civil partnerships between heterosexuals.
The Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, said in a speech to the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Birmingham last Saturday that, in March, the Government would begin “a formal consultation on how to implement equal civil marriage for same-sex couples”. She said that this would allow it “to make any legislative changes necessary by the end of this Parliament”, in 2015. Ms Featherstone said that civil partnerships, which were first registered in 2005, were “a welcome first step . . . [but] I believe that to deny one group of people the same opportunities offered to another is not only discrimination, but is not fair.”
Peter Tatchell, the gay-rights campaigner, said that it was “perplexing” that the “terms of reference” of the consultation “explicitly exclude same-sex religious marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships”. He said that to deny heterosexual couples the option of a civil partnership was “profoundly unjust”, and that it was “an infringement of religious freedom to dictate to faith organisations that they cannot carry out weddings for same-sex partners”.
Mr Tatchell also said that, because the consultation starts in March, “it is unlikely that legislation will be presented to Parliament before mid-2013”; if it were obstructed by the House of Lords, it was “doubtful that it would be passed before late 2014, which is perilously close to the deadline for the next election”.
The Evangelical Alliance (EA) issued a statement on Monday saying that it was “deeply concerned” by the Government’s plans. “Marriage has always been, and in reality will always be, solely between a man and a woman. . . Suggesting that marriage can be ‘broadened’ to include same-sex relationships opens up the prospect of marriage becoming anything that any group with an agenda demands it to be.”
The EA warned that, if the proposals were passed into law, “the many people who cannot and will not accept the validity of these so-called ‘marriages’ could be put in a very difficult position. The Government’s plans conflate difference with equality, and would fragment and devalue marriage as an authentic relational covenant and a social ideal that people aspire to.”
The social-policy charity CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) said in a statement on Tuesday that the Government’s plans “to totally redefine marriage” were “in contradiction of previous reassurances that the whole point of civil partnerships was that they were instead of marriage”.
The Cutting Edge Consortium, a group campaigning against “faith-based homophobia”, said in a statement on Tuesday that it would be “contributing to the Government consultation” on whether to introduce same-sex civil marriage.
Earlier this year, the Government announced that it planned to allow religious buildings to be used to host the registration of civil partnerships of same-sex couples (News, 18 February). The proposals, from the Government Equalities Office, emphasised that any changes would be “entirely voluntary”, and would not “force any religious group to host civil partnership registrations if they do not wish to do so”.
Last month, the Conservative MP Mike Weatherley called on the Government to ban churches from solemnising marriages if they refused to do so for same-sex couples.