Why has Labour failed to vote for marriage equality?

Ed Miliband has endorsed same-sex marriage but the party conference hasn’t

End this bigoted ban on gay marriage


By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner

Tribune – London – 16 September 2011


Ed Miliband says same-sex couples should have the legal right to get married; that civil partnerships are not sufficient. Great! But it is a huge disappointment that the Labour Party conference has not voted for marriage equality.

In contrast, the GMB union and the Green and Liberal Democrat party conferences have voted to end the prohibition on gay marriages and also to repeal the ban on heterosexual civil partnerships. Isn’t it catch-up time for Labour?

In the absence of parliamentary reform, eight British couples – four gay and four straight – have filed a joint legal application to the European Court of Human Rights, seeking to overturn the twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships

They are part of the Equal Love campaign – www.equallove.org.uk – which seeks to open up both civil marriages and civil partnerships to all couples, without discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Think of it this way. Outlawing Jewish people from getting married would provoke uproar and accusations of anti-Semitism. The prohibition on gay civil marriages should provoke similar outrage, as should the exclusion of heterosexual couples from civil partnerships.

The bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships create a system of legal segregation, with one law for gay couples and another law for heterosexual partners. Two wrongs don’t make a right. In a democratic society, we should all be equal before the law.

The legal advisor to the eight couples and author of the legal application is Professor Robert Wintemute of the School of Law at Kings College London. Outlining the legal basis of the Equal Love challenge, he explained:

“By excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage, and different-sex couples from civil partnership, the UK Government is discriminating on the ground of sexual orientation, contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Specifically, the twin bans violate Article 14 (protection against discrimination), Article 12 (the right to marry) and Article 8 (the right to privacy and respect for family life). The only function of the twin bans is to mark lesbian and gay people as inferior to heterosexual people,” he said.

The appeal to the European Court of Human Rights is the culmination of bids by the eight couples to register their relationships. Late last year, the four same-sex couples were refused marriage licenses at register offices in Greenwich, Northampton and Petersfield. Four heterosexual couples were also turned away when they applied for civil partnerships in Islington, Camden, Bristol and Aldershot.

All eight couples received letters of refusal from their register offices, which we have used as the evidential basis to challenge in the European Court of Human Rights the UK’s exclusion of gay couples from civil marriages and straight couples from civil partnerships. Since there is no substantive difference in the rights and responsibilities involved in gay civil marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships, there is no justification for having two mutually exclusive and discriminatory systems.

One of the same-sex plaintiffs, Rev Sharon Ferguson, is an ordained minister of religion and chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. She explained:

Franka (her female partner) and I recently started talking about having our commitment to each other recognised. No matter how good civil partnerships are with regard to the legal protections and rights they provide, they are still a separate system that was put together to stop gay and lesbian people from being able to marry. Like most people, we were brought up to believe that one day we’d fall in love and get married. This is what we want to do and our sexual orientation should not be an impediment,” she said.

One of the opposite-sex plaintiffs, Katherine Doyle, added:

Tom and I have been together for five years and we would like to formalise our relationship. Because we feel alienated from the patriarchal traditions of marriage, we would prefer to have a civil partnership. As a mixed-sex couple, we are banned by law from doing so. By filing an application for civil partnership, we are seeking to challenge this discriminatory law. Our decision is also motivated by the fact that we object to the way same-sex couples are prohibited from getting married. If we got married we would be colluding with the segregation that exists in matrimonial law between gay civil partnerships and straight civil marriages. We don’t want to take advantage of civil marriage when it is an option that is denied to our lesbian and gay friends,” she said.

Nearly two-thirds of the British people back marriage equality. In June 2009, a Populus opinion poll found that 61% of the public believe: “Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships.” Only 33% disagreed. We can probably safely assume that a similar poll today would reveal even greater support for gay civil marriages – and for the right of heterosexuals to have a civil partnerships.

Why is parliament hesitating to legislate equality? Can Ed Miliband please give a lead by asking David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question Time why the ConDem coalition are stonewalling on equal marriage and civil partnership rights? Over to you Ed.

•For more information about the Equal Love campaign and to sign the petition: www.equallove.org.uk