Despite recent controversy, civil partnerships have been a huge success

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Last month, a civil registrar who refuses to officiate at partnerships between same-sex couples, claiming it is "sinful" and against her religion, brought a legal case that could have implications for ceremonies nationwide. "As a matter of religious conscience," Lillian Ladele said she couldn't perform civil partnerships for gay couples and has accused North London's Islington council of religious discrimination and victimisation because it asked her to continue performing them despite her views.

As you might expect, Stonewall is not impressed. Their argument is that public servants are paid to uphold the law and if you don't like that aspect of the job, get another one. "Doubtless, there were those 40 years ago who claimed a moral objection to mixed marriages between those of different ethnic origin," says Ben Summerskill, chief executive.

If the ruling, which is due this month, goes in Ladele's favour, Summerskill believes we'll be heading into tricky territory. "What about medics who object to treating gay people on religious grounds?" he says. "It would be interesting to see what happened if a gay or lesbian registrar said they didn't want to perform civil weddings because they think marriage is patriarchal," he adds.

Those backing Ladele believe the case is an important one for religious liberty. Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, points out that other occupations allow conscientious objections. "No homosexual is being denied their right to marriage, because other registrars are performing them," he says.

What is perhaps most interesting about the case is that it's one of the very few times that civil partnerships have caused a stir since they came into force in 2005. Even back then, the publicity they did get was mostly encouraging.

"The response from newspapers like The Sun to Elton John's civil partnership was enormously positive. OK and Hello! soon started featuring them in the same way as other marriages," says Summerskill.

No doubt their sense of normality has been helped by the sheer numbers. Almost 20,000 couples formed civil partnerships in the first year alone, well in excess of Government estimates.

The benefits, say Stonewall, have been threefold. First, the legislation has given gay and lesbian partners the same rights as their straight counterparts, including becoming their partner's next of kin and benefiting from inheritance and pension rights.

Second, because so many people know someone who has formed a civil partnership – and many have been invited to a ceremony themselves – few can now say they don't know anyone who is gay or lesbian. And once a group of people gains wider recognition, an increase in fairness to them generally follows.

Finally, previously prevailing myths about gay and lesbian people are being debunked, notably the stereotype of gay men being naturally promiscuous. The reality is that so far, 60 per cent of those forming civil partnerships are male, and many of those have been older couples who have been together for years.

"I've lived with my partner for 35 years," says Alan Ashmole, 77, who formed a civil partnership with his partner on 21 December 2005, the first day that it was possible to do so. "It's funny because when we decided to tell people we were doing it, I thought somewhere down the line someone would respond negatively. But absolutely everyone has been positive.'"

Like many people forming a civil partnership, Ashmole and his partner's motivation was legal protection. "Neither of us expected it to be emotional, but it was," he says. "We were publicly affirming things in front of our families and everyone else and that was very moving."

Lucy Warwick, 32, whose civil partnership took place in February this year, said she has also been met with enthusiasm.

"We had 150 people, ranging from a four-week-old nephew to an 80-year-old aunt. And it was no different than when my sister got married, in terms of my dad saying that he'd pay towards the ceremony."

For Matthew Hodson, 40, whose ceremony is due to take place in March next year, the decision by his parents to pay towards the ceremony just as they did for his siblings' weddings is particularly significant. "As a gesture, I think it's their way of saying, 'All our children are equal and their marriage ceremonies are equal."'

Hodson is among those who describes what they're doing as marriage. "I even got down on one knee to propose," he says. "I suppose we feel it amounts to the same thing."

Paul Graham, 32, also refers to having "got married" two years ago. "I call my partner my husband," he adds. For Graham and his partner, the legal motivation was a long way down the list of priorities. "For us, it was about standing up in front of everyone and saying this is the person I want to spend my life with."

For others, the legal issue is the only motivating factor and many gay and lesbian couples simply sign the document and leave. Some, like feminist writer Julie Bindel, do so begrudgingly. "It seems ridiculous to me that it is still seen as more valid and special when a couple are married – or in the case of gay and lesbians, that they've signed a civil partnership – than when a couple chooses not to," she says.

But she and her partner of 19 years eventually went for it, albeit by nipping into the local town hall in their jeans and signing the bit of paper. "I would rather we hadn't had to, but we went to the family lawyer to try to sort things out like next-of-kinship and tax. The lawyer said, 'I don't care what your political views are. Go and sign the civil partnership'."

Despite the occasional feminist and gay critiques, however, many cite the Civil Partnership Act as one of Tony Blair's greatest achievements. What registrar Lillian Ladele will bring to the picture remains to be seen, but good news for those in favour of them is that even if she wins her case, other councils might still be able to argue that they are justified in requiring registrars to officiate for same-sex couples.

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