Leading article: A bright day for equality

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The Independent Online

This is an historic moment. From today, homosexual couples across Britain will be able to inform their local register offices of their intention to enter into a civil partnership. The first registration ceremonies will follow in just over two weeks. Committed gay and lesbian couples will henceforth have access to the same legal rights as married couples with respect to inheritance tax, pensions and a range of other matters. For the first time, gay relationships will be recognised in the eyes of the law.

When this law was passed last November, some complained that it did not place civil partnerships on an equal status with heterosexual marriage. They detected a lingering prejudice among lawmakers. Others objected to the law on the grounds that civil partnerships will not be open to heterosexual couples. They questioned why two siblings living together should not also have these legal privileges. These remain arguments with some substance. But we should be wary of making the best the enemy of the good. This law is not perfect, but it is a significant improvement on the situation that existed before. The number of applications coming in to register offices suggests that most gay couples are happy with the legislation. It is also worth remembering that similar laws already exist in nine European countries and are widely accepted there.

The critics on the reactionary right are easier to dismiss. Some Christian groups have argued that this new law undermines "traditional marriage". But this presumes a peculiarly narrow view of what constitutes a marriage. Up until now, thousands of people in long-term, stable, loving relationships have been denied the ability to commit themselves, in the eyes of the law, to their partners. From this point of view, surely this new law actually bolsters the institution of marriage, rather than harms it.

The Civil Partnerships Act is a milestone on the journey to equality. And in years to come it will be ranked alongside the equalisation of the age of sexual consent. Public attitudes towards homosexuality have changed for the better since the war, particularly amongst the young. And we hope that this new bill will help eradicate what Percy Steven - who will be one of the first people to enter a civil partnership - has described as "the innate or sublimated distaste for gay people that some older people still have".

But we should remember that prejudice and discrimination towards homosexuals still exist in our society. And hatred can still manifest itself in terrible ways, as the brutal killing of a gay man on Clapham Common two months ago demonstrated. This is a bright day for thousands of homosexual couples but the struggle for equality and acceptance is far from over.

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