In arguing for same-sex marriage, people are frequently faced with a number of set piece criticisms, most of which do not stand up to scrutiny. Below are three responses to typical criticisms of same-sex marriage: that it is all about semantics so what is the point, that people are somehow ‘not ready’ and that it would infringe on religious freedom. These are far from the only straw men deployed by the opponents of equality, but they are among the most pervasive.
In the UK, civil partnerships confer the same level of legal rights and obligations as marriage. Just like husbands and wives, civil partners are entitled to inheritance tax exemptions, to insurance and pension benefits, to take parental responsibility, and to be designated next of kin. Furthermore, when we talk of civil partnerships we are more than likely to call them marriages. Even the BBC has described civil partnership ceremonies as ‘weddings’, and spouses in such a union are far more likely to refer to one another as husband or wife, as opposed to civil partner or legally sanctioned companion of the same gender or the like.
Therefore – given that we already have civil partnerships, and given that civil partnerships bring with them the identical set of benefits and responsibilities as ordinary marriages, and given that people already call them marriages in day-to-day life – why the big fuss about gay marriage?
This is best answered with a counterfactual comparison. Before the civil rights movement achieved its hard won victories in the ‘ 60s, especially the case of Loving vs. Virginia in 1967, when the Supreme court struck down Virginia’s miscegenation laws as unconstitutional, all the southern states of the USA had laws banning inter-racial marriage. Mixed-race couples can and did face prosecution for the ’crime’ of miscegenation, much as male homosexual couples faced prosecution for sodomy.
Suppose a solution had been offered that would have given inter-racial couples all the benefits of marriage, including identical legal provisions and protections, but that this fell short of explicitly calling such unions marriage. Would that have been an acceptable solution in the 1960s or today? It would rightly be seen as a humiliation and a gross injustice if people of different racial backgrounds were prohibited from getting married, even if they had the right to engage in a civil partnership. The same holds true for homosexuals.
'My views are evolving'
If you don’t really hold a view on same-sex marriage fear not, most people don’t until they begin to think about it. Even for many people in the gay and lesbian community, civil partnerships have largely been seen as perfectly sufficient, at least at first. Other gay rights issues, such as anti-discrimination legislation and combating homophobic bullying in schools were seen as far more important issues.
But when attention was re-focused on marriage equality, the fact that same-sex couples were still not on an equal footing with heterosexual couples re-entered the national consciousness. And, many people came to the conclusion that this was not fair. Barak Obama put it succinctly in May this year when he said: “I've been going through an evolution on this issue...And I had hesitated on gay marriage - in part, because I thought civil unions would be sufficient.”
It is now clear that a significant number of same-sex couples do not think it is sufficient, and want to express their love in an institution called marriage. But Barak Obama is not the only one whose views have evolved. In fact, most of Britain’s views have been evolving on this subject, as have the views of much of the rest of the world. It would be almost impossible to envisage a serious debate about same-sex marriage taking place in Britain in the 1980s but for the last ten years polls have consistently shown more than half the population supporting the idea. Nor is the UK in this. From Argentina to South Africa, same-sex marriage has been legalised and countries as diverse as Mexico, Australia and Nepal are even now changing their laws. Our politicians should not be afraid to go through a similar evolution.
The concern that religious groups opposed to marriage equality most often raise is the idea that, at some unspecified moment down the line, their religious institutions will be forced to perform same sex marriages. It is this concern that led the government, in its recent consultations over the issue, to specify that there will be no changes to religious marriages, which will continue to only be between a man and a woman.
This concern is a canard.
The idea that the state would force the Catholic Church of England and Wales (for example) to perform gay marriages is about as likely as the idea that the state will force synagogues to serve pork sausages, or that the government will close down mosques that don’t offer christenings. As it is, most people can’t get married at their local church without ingratiating themselves with the vicar, and no one sees the state stepping in to save your special day. Governments around the world have bent over backwards to make clear that the beliefs of religious institutions will not be ignored. A change in the law over religious marriage would stop the state from dictating whether religious institutions are allowed to hold same-sex marriages or not. If such a legislative change were implemented, it would then be up to the religious institution itself to decide whether they wished to hold such services in future.
The great irony is that there are plenty of religious institutions and communities that already offer religious aspects to the civil partnership ceremony. Quakers, some Baptists and liberal synagogues are happy to solemnize the ceremony with religious rites. But according to the proposals under consideration at present they will not be allowed to extend this to same-sex marriages. So if you and your same sex partner want to get married before singing ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ you are out of luck, at least according to the government’s current proposals.
Most people who support same-sex marriage do so out of a sense that all people should be treated fairly and equitably. Fairness also dictates that religious institutions should be free to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies if they wish, and also free to decline to offer them if that is what they prefer.