Equal Love – the law should recognise gay marriage and same-sex civil partnerships

The Equal Love campaign has taken the cause of legal recognition of same-sex marriage and different-sex civil partnerships to the European Court of Human Rights

By Peter Tatchell, of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and OutRage!

Eight British couples – four gay and four heterosexual – have filed a joint legal application to the European Court of Human Rights – seeking to overturn the twin bans on gay civil marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships. They are part of the Equal Love campaign which seeks to open up both civil marriages and civil partnerships to all couples, without discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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 said:

“Our Equal Love campaign wants both marriages and civil partnerships opened up to all couples, different-sex and same-sex. Let everyone have a free and equal choice.

“Banning same-sex marriage and different-sex civil partnerships violates Articles 8, 12 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“It’s discriminatory and obnoxious, like having separate drinking fountains or beaches for different racial groups, even though the water is the same. The only function of the twin bans is to mark lesbian and gay people as socially and legally inferior to heterosexual people.

“I am confident that we have a good chance of persuading the European Court of Human Rights that the UK’s system of segregating couples into two ‘separate but equal’ legal institutions violates the European Convention.

“I predict that same-sex couples will be granted access to marriage in the UK and that this will be because the British government will eventually accept that it cannot defend the current discriminatory system.”

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, Reverend 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.

“The simple fact is that 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 in this world, 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.”

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.”

Nearly two-thirds of the British people back marriage equality. In June 2009, a Populus opinion poll found that 61% of the public agree that:

“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 holding back?  Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg support marriage equality. Even Boris Johnson backs the idea. Sadly, David Cameron and George Osborne are resisting the clamour to end discrimination in civil marriage and civil partnership law. What happened to the Conservative’s self-proclaimed new liberal, gay-friendly agenda?

• For more information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights and social justice campaigns visit www.petertatchell.net.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.