Equality campaigners have given a critical response to the latest government announcement on same-sex marriage. They are concerned that ministers have delayed a consultation on the issue and that their plans concern only civil and not religious marriage.
Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone confirmed at the Liberal Democrats' conference that the UK government is committed to legislating for recognition of same-sex marriage in England and Wales by 2015. The Scottish government is already planning to legislate for same-sex marriage in Scotland.
Featherstone said that a consultation – which had been due to begin this year – will instead commence in the spring. Critics are disappointed with the lengthy timetable.
The government confirmed that they plan to give recognition only to same-sex civil marriages and not to same-sex religious marriages. Campaigners fear that this will leave religious same-sex couples with the fewest rights of all.
Peter Tatchell, co-ordinator of the Equal Love campaign, said, “It is perplexing that the minister for equality wants to maintain the discriminatory laws that prohibit gay couples from having a religious marriage and heterosexual couples from having a civil partnership. She sounds more like the minister for inequality.”
He also said that Featherstone was wrong to rule out the possibility of civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples. They are currently available only to same-sex couples, while marriage is recognised only for mixed-sex relationships.
Tatchell questioned whether the government was committed to bringing in the change, given that the deadline of 2015 is also the planned date of the next general election. The government has already delayed the implementation of a law passed in 2010 that will allow same-sex civil partnerships to be solemnised in religious premises.
The government's announcement was welcomed by Stonewall, a charity that campaigns for the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Somewhat sarcastically, they said that they welcomed news of the consultation “as warmly as we have welcomed the previous two announcements that consultation was shortly to begin”.
Stonewall added, “We do regret that the government appears to have once again delayed the timetable for consulting on this issue”.
There is suspicion in several quarters that the announcement was timed to reassure grassroots members of the Liberal Democrats that their leadership is having an influence on coalition policies.
Adrian Tett, chair of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liberal Democrats, said, “It is good to hear that following some excellent work by Lynne Featherstone, same-sex marriage will finally be going ahead”.
But Tett said that the group was disappointed that "the Conservative party has delayed this and watered it down”.
He added, “Access to religious same-sex marriage is missing, and there is no mention of mixed-sex civil partnerships, nor of ending the forced divorce of transgender people who wish to gain full legal recognition”.
He said that Quaker Liberal Democrats, as well as other members of the party, had spoken out in support of legal recognition for religious same-sex marriage.
Quakers are one of several faith groups keen to carry out same-sex marriages. Others include the Unitarians, Liberal Judaism and the Metropolitan Community Church. There have been calls within the Baptist Union of Great Britain for each individual Baptist Church to make up its own mind on the issue. The United Reformed Church is due to debate the question next year.
Same-sex marriage has been criticised by socially conservative groups including Christian Concern, the Christian Institute and Catholic Voices. Some have alleged that faith groups could be forced to carry out same-sex marriages when they don't believe in them, though critics point out that virtually nobody is calling for this.
Other Christian groups have spoken in favour of same-sex marriage, including the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia. The group Changing Attitude is holding a conference on Saturday (24 September) to discuss their campaign for same-sex civil partnerships in churches.
Ekklesia has long called for a thorough overhaul of marriage law to reflect the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society. They believe that people who are getting married should be able to go through a personal, social and – if important to them – religious ceremony, with legal registration being a separate process.