Civil partnerships have been legal in England and Wales since 2005. CPs granted many of the same rights as marriages, without permitting the use of the word itself. The 2004 Civil Partnership Act also prohibited religious iconography or terminology being used in CP ceremonies. They were strictly secular, robbing LGBT couples of reciting the same time-honoured vows as straight folk. Nonetheless, within the first decade, over 60,000 civil partnerships had been formed.
One couple, Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson, who were legally married in British Columbia, Canada, refused to accept the government’s recognition of their marriage as a civil partnership. They sued under the European Convention of Human Rights, arguing that CPs were an inferior substitute to marriages, and not the synonymous with the commitment they had undertaken. The case went all the way to the High Court of Justice, which ruled in 2006 that the couple had been discriminated against by the government’s refusal to recognise their marriage as a marriage, but the judge declared the fact they were a same-sex couple was an “insurmountable hurdle” to their claim to marriage, and concluded: “To the extent that by reason of that distinction it discriminates against same-sex partners, such discrimination has a legitimate aim, is reasonable and proportionate, and falls within the margin of appreciation accorded to Convention States.”
Following the ruling, it seemed CPs and marriages would continue to coexist in British law, a “separate but equal” arrangement which many felt was anything but. Various equal marriage campaigns were formed from 2008 onward. In the run-up to the 2010 general election, same-sex marriage was once again a talking point, with all the main parties at least agreeing to consider debating the issue in parliament. A number of smaller religious denominations (the largest was the Quakers) also began to agitate against the specific prohibition of them conducting or being party to CP ceremonies, and confirmed their recognition of same-sex marriages within their own denominations.
In September 2011, the Liberal-Tory coalition government announced it would hold a consultation on introducing secular same-sex marriage. The Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, was instrumental in pushing the motion through against the wishes of most of his party. In March 2012 the consultation was launched, and it concluded in December of the same year. 53% of respondents were in favour of introducing civil marriages for same-sex couples. On the opposing side, nineteen separate petitions from faith-based groups and anti-SSM organisations had produced 500,000 signatures against legalising SSM in the UK.
In response to the consultation’s findings, and the petitions submitted, the government announced plans to bring forward SSM legislation to early in the next year, with additional protections added to prevent religious organisations from being compelled to perform such marriages, a so-called “quadruple lock” of measures which (i) ensured the legislation explicitly stated that no religious person can be compelled to perform a SSM or permit the same to occur on their premises, (ii) establish an opt-in system for denominations which do want to perform SSMs, but allow an exclusion for individual ministers who don’t wish to perform such ceremonies, even in contravention of their faith’s overall policy on the matter, (iii) amend the Equality Act to exclude discrimination claims against religious organisations and ministers who refuse to perform SSMs, and (iv) specifically prohibit the Church of England and Church of Wales from taking any part in the performance of a same-sex marriage.
The bill was introduced to parliament in 24th January 2013, and was debated in full at the second reading on 5th February. I wrote about the debate at the time and won’t repeat myself here, but I have never been more proud of — or moved by — the British government than I was that day. The bill passed by 400 votes to 175.
Same-sex marriages became legal in England and Wales on 29th March 2014. The Scottish government moved at about the same pace as England, and SSM was legalised there from 31st December 2014. Northern Ireland continues to refuse to recognise same-sex marriage, with a fifth bill aimed at introducing SSM being vetoed only last week.