Less than 50 years ago, homosexuality was illegal in Britain. The last half-century has seen a revolution in social attitudes since a pioneering Labour home secretary, Roy Jenkins, pushed through the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. This week, the Coalition's equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, is expected to knock away another pillar in the ancient and unlovely edifice of institutionalised prejudice by announcing legal changes enabling gay men and lesbians to marry.
The opponents of gay marriage, who come mainly from the ranks of the churches or political right, argue that civil partnerships, which became legal in 2004, already give gay couples the substance of equality with their heterosexual counterparts, especially with regard to pension and inheritance rights. They may be right to point out that the effect of any expected change is likely to be mostly symbolic. But symbols are important and as long as the institution of marriage remains the exclusive preserve of a man and a woman, the message being sent out is that gay couples are still in some way different, second class and only almost equal.
Much attention around the expected change to the law will concentrate on whether the churches will now have to allow gay marriages to take place in their places of worship. Certainly, it will be interesting to see how the Church of England, which remains bitterly divided over the ordination of gay priests, responds.
If changes to the law force what is still the Established Church in England to clarify its muddled and often disingenuous thinking on the question of sexual equality, so much the better. But in an age when a growing number of marriages take place in civil settings and have no religious element to them at all, this is at the same time a peripheral matter.
Much more important than anything the churches have to say is that Britain is now a world front-runner in the field of equality for sexual minorities. If the Coalition Government succeeds in following through on Ms Featherstone's expected proposals, it willbe to its credit.
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