The Equal Love campaign has today (21 December) begun a legal challenge over the ban on same-sex marriage in the UK. The case has been brought by four same-sex couples who have been refused the right to marry and four mixed-sex couples who have been denied civil partnerships.
The couples include both religious and non-religious people. The campaign is co-ordinated by the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and backed by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM).
While marriage and civil partnership provide almost exactly the same rights and benefits in law, the term marriage is not available to same-sex couples, who are limited to a civil partnership. The campaigners believe that this system is discriminatory.
Speaking at King's College London this morning, Tatchell described the current law as “a form of sexual apartheid”, comparable to “banning black couples from getting married”.
An application will be filed with the European Court of Human Rights in January. The campaigners had intended to do this today, but one of the rejected couples has yet to receive the formal rejection letter from the Register Office concerned. The eight letters will be used in the legal action as evidence of discrimination.
Campaigners are continuing to lobby politicians for a change in the law, which some believe could happen before the case gets to court in two to three years' time.
The leaders of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties support legal recognition of same-sex marriage, while the Conservatives said in the run-up to this year's general election that they will “consider the case” for it.
Rev Sharon Ferguson, who kicked off the Equal Love process in October when she was refused permission to marry her partner Franka Streitzel at Greenwich Register Office, explained that she did not want a civil partnership.
This morning she described marriage as “ordained by God”, explaining that “this campaign is also for me about religious freedom”. She insisted that same-sex couples should be able to talk about love and marriage in the same terms as heterosexuals.
Katherine Doyle, whose application for a civil partnership to her partner Tom Freeman was refused in Islington, said, “We have been amazed by how many people have reacted so strongly to the Equal Love campaign, either in favour or against”.
Doyle argued that the difference in language implies that “the relationship between Tom and me and [between] Sharon and Franka is fundamentally different”. But she insisted that it is not, adding, “The only important thing about marriage and partnership is the love between two people”.
Tatchell explained that while the present case is about civil marriage and civil partnership, he hopes that it will also lead to recognition of religious same-sex marriage. But he made clear that the campaigners would “not seek to force religious bodies” to carry out such marriages if they do not wish to.
Seven European countries currently recognise same-sex marriage. Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights Law at King's College, predicted at today's event that “it could easily reach twelve within the next three years”.
He said, “One of the graduates of King's College of whom we are most proud is Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and I've no doubt that he would support the Equal Love campaign”.
Wintemute pointed out that next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty for sexual relations between two men in the UK. Such acts remained illegal until 1967. From 1988-2003, the famous “Section 28” banned local authorities and schools from presenting homosexuality as legitimate. Civil partnerships were introduced in 2005.
In the light of this history, Wintemute urged the government to “take the final step” of marriage equality.
In response to questioning, Tatchell acknowledged that there are many other anomalies and inequalities in current marriage law, including the different rights afforded to religious groups to solemnise legally recognised marriages.
While explaining that these issues do not form part of the current case, he said he hoped that “when we win the case”, the campaigners will “be able to persuade the government and indeed Parliament to tidy up all these discrepancies”.
A debate to mark the launch was chaired by leading human rights lawyer Anthony Lester, whose work in the House of Lords played a major part in prompting the government to introduce civil partnerships. He also attempted to introduce a law granting certain legal benefits to couples who are “co-habiting” but unmarried, but the legislation was not passed.
Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter, gave her backing to the campaign. She said she had originally supported greater rights for “co-habiting” couples, but thought that allowing mixed-sex civil partnerships would have the same effect.
Professor Cees van Dam spoke of the successful campaign for marriage equality in the Netherlands, which now allows a choice of marriage and “registered partnership” for both same-sex and mixed-sex couples.
Other speakers included Rev Giles Goddard of the Anglican group Inclusive Church and the Rev Carla Grosch-Miller of St Columba's United Reformed Church in Oxford.
In a passionate speech, Grosch-Miller insisted that, “The early Christians were called followers of the Way. Not the way things are but the way things ought to be. Not the way we've always done it but the way the Spirit leads us.”
She added, “With other church communities around the UK, I urge the government to extend the right to both religious and civil marriage to same-sex couples”. She concluded, “Justice requires it. Grace demands it.”
Peter Tatchell encouraged religious groups that believe in same-sex marriages to carry them out. He said, “They would have no legal status but the symbolic value of doing that would be immense” and add to pressure for a change in the law.
Tatchell added that religious groups had often been at the forefront of campaigns for social justice and racial equality. He said, “We look to people of faith to give us a lead in this matter”.