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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Love, Civil Partnerships and Marriage

I spoke on "Love, Civil Partnership and Marriage" at the GMB (General and Municipal Boilermakers) Trade Union "Shout!" fringe meeting prior to the Trades Union Council (TUC) LGBT Conference earlier this week. The General Assembly works with several trade unions as part of the Cutting Edge Consortium.

I explained the background to Unitarian support for equal rights for LGBT people arising from our historic commitment to civil and religious liberty.

I said "Love” in all its diversity cannot be limited to institutional arrangements about marriage and civil partnerships. I recognise that for many LGBT people these are not for them. But equal marriage rights does make a statement about society’s acceptance of equality for LGBT people more generally.

In 2008 Unitarians asked the Government to allow Civil Partnerships on religious premises little knowing that this would soon be raised as a real possibility. We were pleased to support Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill along with our close friends in the Quakers, Liberal Judaism and the MCC. This support according to Stonewall made a real difference. We have always been open to couples rejected elsewhere; such as mixed faith weddings and of divorcees; and for those who want to have a more personalised service. We know that many gay people of faith have wanted this every important event in their lives to be recognised in a place that is significant to them and some of our Ministers carried out same sex blessings.

As for the future Lynne Featherstone MP, Minister for Equality, has launched a opportunity to debate same sex civil marriage and to “Work with all those who have an interest in equal civil marriage and partnerships, on how legislation can develop.” (July 2011)

The history of marriage reform in this country is one of the Church of England slowly giving up its monopoly. Unitarians and other dissenters, apart from Quakers and Jews, had to marry in the CoE until 1837.

In Scotland a recent paper by the Scottish Human Rights Commission had the rather pointed title “Ending the Segregation of same sex couples and transgender people”. The SNP Government is committed to consulting on the issue and the First Minister is on record as supporting equal marriage.

As the mainstream Churches oppose civil partnerships on their premises they will undoubtedly oppose any legislation on same sex marriage. They will do this because marriage has always been central to the Church of England’s role as national Church. They and other churches (including Unitarians) carry out what are state functions in many other countries; marriage in church is not an add on to a civil ceremony; it is legally equivalent and came before civil marriage. The challenge will be that same sex civil marriage will redefine what marriage is and raise the issue of same sex religious marriage. We and the Quakers and Liberal Jews will, of course, argue for this seeking real equality.

The religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, which backs reform, has suggested that the civil and religious aspects of weddings should be separated, freeing the state to offer marriage and partnership rights to all, and enabling various religious bodies to decide independently which relationships they wish to bless without preventing others from acting differently. This may be a way forward but represents a major change to marriage law.

There was a vigorous discussion in the forty strong audience. Issues affecting trans people were raised and this is something that I had not addressed and about which I have much to learn. The relationship between gender reassignment and marriage law in complex and very different to those affecting LGB people. We also had a good debate on what should be the tactics; seek to achieve civil marriage law recognising that religious bodies will oppose change or try to achieve a permissive right for those faith bodies who wish to undertake same sex marriages or alternatively seek major marriage law reform more generally.

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