Sunday, 13 February 2011

A 'Marriage' Media Muddle

*Expanded and revised 15.22 on 13/2/11.

I started digging for this blog post and then gave up because it's such a muddle. However, as more and more seem to be welcoming a botched leak, presumably from the Home Office/Government Equalities Office I feel the need to write.

The Sunday Times and the Telegraph both run the story on 'gay marriage'. The Sunday Telegraph both goes with the headline 'Gay 'marriages' to be allowed in church' whilst the Sunday Times goes with 'Gays will get right to marry'. The BBC has subsequently picked up the story.

There seems to actually be two stories going on here but I'm struck that it seems to have been leaked to right of centre media outlets on a Sunday. Someone is flying a kite.

The Sunday Times begins by stating 'Gay men and lesbians are to be given the same right to marry as heterosexual couples under marriage law reforms expected to be announced this week'. OK, so if (a big if) true, this would pre-empt 'half' of the Equal Love legal action and open up marriage to both gay and straight couples. It would also make a legal action (the other 'half' of the Equal Love campaign) to open civil partnerships to all couples - not just same-sex ones - a certain win. So, if the story is accurate, civil partnerships will also need to be opened up. At the time of writing, no media story seems to take this into account.

Next up, if marriage is defined to be open to same-sex couples, religious providers will then need to provide those services too. That's why I think this is probably a muddle and a bit of Chinese Whispers in the media.

Far more likely (and less exciting) is that the government is now developing Section 202 of the Equality Act 2010. This section removes the express prohibition which prevents civil partnership registrations from being registered on religious premises. However, in order for this to come into force, the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005 would need to be amended and a full public consultation would be required before any change was introduced.

This is likely to be the announcement of that consultation. Again, no report seems to make reference to section 202.

Any such review is likely (as the Sunday Times does suggest) to seek to navigate a route that allows some religious groups to allow for civil partnerships to take place on religious premises and others the ability to continue to deny that right. This does seem hugely problematic, and they are going to be a series of human rights based legal challenges until equality is achieved.

So, before we all get terribly excited, let's calm down and see what's announced. It's unlikely to be as great as the media seem to be billing things now and that's going to be a major headache for Lib Dem Minister, Lynne Featherstone, especially in light of the criminal convictions story. Th Government will be seen as 'watering down' equality proposals, when in reality they were never as radical as the media made them out to be.

A genuinely radical, and I would suggest better proposal, would be to take religion out of this whole thing. Allow a range of state recognised relationships and remove the ability of religious groups to offer anything other than a religious 'blessing' for anyone who wants that. People would go to the register office and could get married/enter a civil union/partnership without any ceremony and then go to Church and become 'married' in the eyes of their faith. This would also drag marriage and civil partnerships out of the legal quagmire and better reflect contemporary society.

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