The New Gay Marriage Law and UK Attitudes to LGBT People
This February in the UK’s House of Commons, an historic vote was held. Members of Parliament were asked whether or not they would support a law recognising the rights of same-sex couples to marry. The event received much coverage both before and after the ballots were cast, with strong opinions on both sides. The truth is that the UK population is still split on the subject of gay marriage.
There has been a slow and steady march towards equal treatment since the 2004 introduction of Civil Partnerships, which gave same-sex couples all the rights granted by marriage whilst not being, technically, a marriage. For a while, this was the perfect solution – gay people would not suffer the legal troubles that they had done previously, whilst social conservatives were happy that the ‘one man, one woman’ definition of marriage had been maintained.
In under a decade, the mainstream view had advanced enough to ask: why shouldn’t gay couples be allowed a real marriage? A change to the law became a campaign promise for the centre-left – the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party, which together draw a majority of the public vote. But that doesn’t mean that there is universal support, with conservative voters and religious organisations, such as the Church of England (CoE) and the Roman Catholic Church, remaining opposed.
Religious Freedom and the Established Church
The new law, though obviously a huge victory for the LGBT community and equal rights campaigners, is not without exception. It will state that clergy members have no obligation to perform same-sex ceremonies and, in particular, that the Church of England’s policy against gay marriage is specifically excluded. This means that whilst other churches and their clergy may choose to marry gay couples, the CoE and its ministers are banned from conducting such ceremonies. Church leaders don’t like it because they believe it’s open to legal challenge and that their special exemptions may melt away. People such as myself don’t like it for reasons which I will now discuss. The question of same-sex marriage, then, is not yet closed.
Most people support religious freedom – the right to believe what you want to believe, and not have the opinions of others forced upon you. I would say that most people, myself included, understand why clergy should not be forced to marry same-sex couples when it is possible to get married in another, more tolerant church or a non-religious building. The issue is that in the UK, we don’t have separation of church and state. The CoE is ‘established’, meaning that it has certain rights. For example, its bishops are allowed to sit and vote in the upper chamber of our Parliament, the House of Lords. This creates a crucial difference between it and other religious bodies.
The CoE does not want to conduct gay weddings. Its reasoning for this is that it is a religious organisation, with an entitlement to views which are independent of the state’s. But how can it separate itself from the state on the issue of equal marriage whilst firmly integrating itself in every other area? You are either part of the state, and so obligated to uphold equality, or you are not part of it. The fight is far from over for those who demand true equality for LGBT couples in the UK.
Thomas Jones is a freelance blogger writing on behalf of a gay blog.