Campaigners have said they are ready and willing to launch a court case over the ban on legal recognition of same-sex marriage in the UK. The Equal Love campaign, launched today (26 October) insists that marriage and civil partnership should be options available to both same-sex and mixed-sex couples.
In the first stage of the campaign, four same-sex couples will attempt to register for a civil marriage, while four mixed-sex couples apply for a civil partnership.
All eight couples will almost certainly be refused. They will then more on to a joint legal challenge.
The process will begin on 2 November when Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), attends Greenwich Registry Office with her partner Franka Strietzel. They will attempt to register for a marriage. A week later, Katherine Doyle and Tom Freeman will apply for a civil partnership.
“Everything is moving both nationally and internationally in favour of same-sex marriage,” insisted the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell at a press conference this morning, “The trend is in our favour”.
Same-sex marriage is now recognised in five European Union countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden – as well as Argentina, Canada, Iceland, Norway and South Africa.
But Tatchell insisted that, “This is not a gay rights campaign. It is a campaign for equal love rights for everyone.”
Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights Law at King's College London, said that human rights law in both the EU and UK prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. This provision is expected to form the basis of the legal challenge.
The campaigners accept that there is very little difference between the legal rights currently accorded to a marriage and those granted in a civil partnership. But they emphasise the importance of the word used to describe a relationship.
“Separate is not equal and words do matter,” insisted Wintemute. As an example, he compared the situation with a university using the job title “professor” only for male staff while labelling women who did the same work as “senior teachers”.
Ferguson urged Christians to back the campaign. “Because of my Christian faith, it's marriage that I want,” she explained, “As Christians, we believe in the sanctity of marriage and this is the institution that we want”.
Ferguson explained that she had welcomed the introduction of civil partnerships, prior to which her marriage counselling to same-sex couples had often been dominated by discussion of legal issues. She also welcomed legislation passed earlier this year to allow religious elements in civil partnerships, which the government is now in the process of implementing.
But she insisted that same-sex couples are “still a long way from being [able] to totally celebrate that commitment, both legally and religiously”.
While Ferguson and Strietzel want a Christian marriage, Ferguson said that there is “no way we're ever going to get same-sex religious marriage [legally recognised] until we get same-sex civil marriage”.
Wintemute explained that the campaign is calling for “equal access to legal marriage”, whether civil or religious.
Such a change would mean that same-sex marriage would be legally recognised in any context in which mixed-sex marriage are currently allowed. However, no church or other faith group would be obliged to accept same-sex marriages if they did not wish to do so.
Doyle and Freeman will be the first of four mixed-sex couples to apply for a civil partnership as part of the campaign. They explained that they had begun to discuss marriage last year, but were put off by the inequality of the law.
Freeman said, “We don't want to become part of a system that perpetuates segregation”. Doyle added, “Could we in all conscience get married when there are other people who can't?”. She said they also decided that the language and imagery of marriage were “not right for us”.
She told Ekklesia that she and her partner are not natural activists. “Tom and I are not people who campaign,” she said. After deciding that they wanted a civil partnership, they had assumed there would be an existing campaign for mixed-sex civil partnerships to be allowed.
But after discovering that there was not even a Facebook group on the issue, Doyle said they realised that “we can sit here, we can twiddle our thumbs and say we would have a civil partnership if we could” or else “stand up and get something done”.
Legal recognition for same-sex marriage is now supported by the leaders of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties, along with the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
The Christian thinktank Ekklesia has called for a thorough overhaul of marriage law that allows both mixed-sex and same-sex couples to enter into a personal, communal and – if important to them – religious commitment, with legal registration being a separate process.