Anglican exemptions violate the principle of marriage equality

By Peter Tatchell
December 11, 2012

The government’s commitment to allow most religious organisations to conduct same-sex marriages - but not the Church of England and the Church in Wales - is a disappointing fudge that perpetuates inequality.

Denying these churches the right to opt in and host same-sex marriages undermines gay equality and religious freedom.

Exempting the official established church sends the wrong signal. There is no reason why these churches should be treated differently from other faiths.

This faith-based discrimination could be open to legal challenge. The government is treating two churches differently from all other religions. Discriminating between faith groups is probably illegal under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.

It is very foolish of the government to appear to be caving in to the demands of intolerant religious lobbyists by making it illegal for the Church of England and Church in Wales to conduct religious same-sex marriages, even if they want to do so.

These exemptions undermine the praise the government deserves for sticking to its pledge to legalise same-sex marriage. The commitment to marriage equality is commendable

Permitting same-sex couples with civil partnerships to convert them into civil marriages is a positive move. Retaining the ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships is a huge failing. It deprives heterosexual couples of legal equality. I strongly support the right of straight people to equal treatment.

Under the government’s plans, gay couples will soon have legal privileges over heterosexual couples. There will be two forms of official state recognition for lesbian and gay couples: the present system of civil partnerships plus marriage. Heterosexual couples will have only one option: marriage.

The Equal Love campaign will continue our legal appeal in the European Court of Human Rights, in a bid to win the right of opposite-sex couples to have a civil partnership, if they wish to do so.

Our current European Court case [1] also seeks to overturn the prohibition on opposite-sex civil partnerships. This aspect of the legal case will continue, even if the government legislates marriage equality.

My four decades of human rights activism have been based on the principle of equality. I can’t accept equal rights for gay couples but not for heterosexual couples.

In a democratic society, we should all be equal before the law. Straight men and women also deserve equality. Both civil marriages and civil partnerships should be open to all couples, without any sexual orientation discrimination.

In the Netherlands, where civil marriages and civil partnerships are available to all couples - gay and straight – the vast majority of civil partnerships are between heterosexual men and women. Some straight people prefer them.

“If civil partnerships were made available to heterosexual couples in the UK there would probably be a similar significant take up.

“This issue is not about numbers. It is about equality. Even if only a handful of straight people wanted a civil partnership, they’d be entitled to have one,” said Mr Tatchell.


[1] Peter Tatchell pioneered the campaign for same-sex marriage in 1992, when he organised the first challenge to the ban on gay couples. Five same-sex couples filed marriage licence applications at Marylebone Register Office in March that year. They were refused. As coordinator of the Equal Love campaign, together with Professor Robert Wintemute of Kings College London, in February 2011 in the European Court of Human Rights, he organised a new legal challenge to the UK’s gay civil marriage and straight civil partnership bans. The application to the ECHR can be read here:


(c) Peter Tatchell is a longstanding human rights campaigner and director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation (

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