The Home Office’s civil marriage consultation

With much trumpeting of archbishops and baying of Cardinals, crying the usual nonsense about how this will DESTROY US ALL, the Westminister government have launched their own consultation on lifting the ban on same-sex marriage. This closes on 14 June 2012.

Dr Williams is resigning at the end of 2012, but his probable successor the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, is no happier about the idea that same-sex couples could get married.

Rowan Williams and John Sentamu at the General Synod

(The first consultation in the UK on equal marriage closed in December 2011, and the report will be published within the next couple of months.)

Responding to the consultation only took me a few minutes but a lot of prior thought.

The first page asks if you’re responding as an individual or on behalf of an organisation. Note that you can do both, though not at the same time – if you represent an organisation and the organisation has a point of view on marriage. They also want to know your gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation if any, and whether you yourself would be having a marriage or a civil partnership if the option was available to you.

You have to read the questions fairly carefully, because sometimes “Agree” or “Disagree” isn’t quite what it first looks like.

I said yes to lifting the ban, of course:

Marriage is a human right. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares it to be so, and adds that both men and women “without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion” should be able to marry and found a family, “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” which is “entitled to protection by society and the State”. Clearly, the intent of UDHR was that no one should be excluded from the freedom to marry their chosen partner, with the “free and full consent of the intending spouses”.

The ban on same-sex couples marrying should be lifted.

If any object, it is for those opposing to find some grounds why it would prove hazardous to lift the ban. Marriage is now available to same-sex couples in a dozen countries round the world. The opponents of same-sex marriage have had over a decade to try to find grounds for opposition, and they have never managed to find any grounds that would stand up in court.

The assertion that they object to same-sex couples marrying because their religion is against it cannot be used as an argument against civil marriage.

Not that this has stopped them!

The ban on same-sex couples marrying has been lifted in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden: in the US in the states of Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, in Washington DC, and in the Coquille and Suquamish nations. Same-sex marriages are legally recognised in California and Maryland, in Israel, and Brazil. In not one of those countries have any of the prophecies of DOOM come true, nor has the threatened slide down the slippery slope into the anti-marriage brigade’s lubricious fantasies of incest, polygamy, or bestiality. Nor, more to the point, in any of the countries (with one interesting exception) have priests of any religion been forced to marry same-sex couples.

(The sole exception is in Sweden. The Church of Sweden is a state church: the pastors are paid by the state, they are civil servants. They are not allowed as civil servants to refuse to celebrate a lawful marriage of a Swedish citizen. That applies to both same-sex and mixed-sex marriages. Pastors who find this intolerable can always, I suppose, set up their own church and accept the loss of a secure income from the state.)

I was not able to respond to any questions on the trans issues in equal marriage, because the consultation appeared to be allowing responses on those issues only from people who identify as trans or who are in a relationship with a trans person.

I did agree that people who have a civil partnership ought to be able to convert it into a marriage if they wish, and that there should be no time-limit on this. I disagree that the ban on mixed-sex couples having a civil partnership should be continued.

I disagree, of course, that the Westminster government is right to refuse to even consider lifting the ban on same-sex couples marrying with a religious ceremony. While they’re trying to avoid trouble with the churches, it should be clear from the poisonous bile flooded by the religious right that they will get the trouble anyway, just because they’re offering to treat LGBT people as equals and fellow humans.

Christina Odone provides a perfect example of the kind of religious rightwinger who’s willing to accept gay men as her friends and inferiors, but who gets into a tizzy about how unfair it is that when she wants marriage to be regarded as a privileged fortress from which lesbians and gays are excluded, she gets vilified for that by people who didn’t realise until then how much she despised them: for Odone marriage is not a blessing but a castle, and what’s the use of a castle if you don’t have gates and a moat to keep out the peasants?

There’s a poll in the Telegraph today asking if Church leaders were being divisive and homophobic or if “Christians have a right to put their point of view across”. The questions are as slanted as the recent “Scotland for Marriage” poll – of course they have a right to put their point of view across. Their point of view is divisive, inflammatory, and homophobic: based entirely on the idea that it’s okay for Christians to bear false witness against their neighbours, if their neighbours are gay:

Opponents of equal marriage are quick to appeal to the notion of England as a Christian country and its churches as the heart of our communities. If we are to entertain this notion, as C4M would no doubt like us to, then it must follow that their petition is flawed beyond redemption.

The C4M petition, you see, is a curtain-twitcher’s dream come true. While it may be possible to tune out your priest as he relays the reminder from on high of your personal duty to oppose the marriages of your friends or children – or indeed your own – it takes greater improvisation and strength of conviction to decline your minister’s pen and petition as he proffers them over the obligatory post-match tea and biscuits. And however pre-occupied you are with clearing the tables and rearranging the hymn books, that’s of course no excuse for not later adding your name, in the comfort of your own living room, to the publicly searchable list of conscientious objectors.

This isn’t a merely hypothetical situation. It is already happening in English congregations, and will continue to happen until the consultation closes. The line of a religious institution under attack continues to be spun at the expense of the LGBT faithful, their friends and their family, artifically inflating the figures in favour of the misguided and misleading campaign to restore the cement which entrenches the foundations of religious privilege in UK law.

In the last section, we were asked about the “further considerations” that ought to be made – on process, on pensions, on international recognition, on devolution.

Scotland is already heading towards same-sex marriage, probably faster than England. Married couples should be legally recognised as married throughout the UK, whether or not the specific region of the UK provides same-sex marriage. So a couple from Northern Ireland might have to travel to mainland UK to get gay marriage, just as they must travel to get an abortion, (the two have more in common than you might think) but when they return, they should be recognised as a married couple.

International recognition has already developed for civil partnership and will if anything be easier for married couples: marriage is one of those universally-understood arrangements, whereas trying to explain that you have a civil partnership and this is legally just the same as marriage is awkward (and doesn’t work at all in Israel, for example).

Pensions is the big issue. Pension companies did not wish to recognise same-sex couples as entitled to the same survivor benefits as married couples, and were able to do so by pointing out that the agreements said “spouse” and a civil partner is not a spouse. State pensions allow a civil partner the same survivor benefits as a widower. But private pensions can and do refuse to acknowledge any payments made by their client with regard to survivor benefits for the civil partner, before 5th December 2005. And I’m damned sure they’ll want to keep on doing that even after same-sex couples can marry. But allowing this would be discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, which would be illegal.

But I have more confidence that the Tories will ignore the blasts from the religious right about civil marriage than I do that they will ignore the deputations from the pensions companies explaining earnestly that it just wouldn’t be fair if they had to dip into their expected profits and pay a widowed spouse more.

Still. It’s worth letting the Tories know that this is a good thing they’re doing. They don’t do good things often. Give them a cookie. Do the consultation.

Update: I added my thoughts to an anti-marriage blog here.

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