Thursday, 17 February 2011

Equality must extend to all parts of the UK

Earlier, while on the briefest of brief lunch breaks, I posted to welcome Lynne Featherstone's announcement which allows for same-sex ceremonies to be held in religious buildings. This is a positive step towards equality. Even more encouraging is her obvious determination to give gay people full legal rights, ending the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage which in my view is discriminatory and unnecessary.

As I mentioned in a previous post, unfortunately this change in the law only applies to England and Wales. Caron has argued that this means "Scotland lags behind on marriage equality", observing that "nobody seems to be showing enough will to advance the cause of equal marriage". Meanwhile, the Gyronny Herald (a Northern Irish blogger) asks the pertinent question: "Reforming the marriage law - why not on a UK basis?" Applying the law to only some parts of the UK will only create further inequality, he wryly notes.

Yes, of course these changes must take place across the UK. Lynne Featherstone is no doubt committed to ensuring genuine equality and her goal is presumably to ensure that gay people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all given the same freedom to enter into marriage. The reason she is unable to guarantee the same rights across the UK is for the simple reason that such a change would be the responsibility for the Scottish Parliament and the Stormont Assembly.

In the case of Scotland, I am confident that people will, as Caron urges, "advance the cause of equal marriage". I will for one. I am sure the Liberal Democrats as a party will do likewise. Scotland has moved forward in its attitudes since the shameful episode eleven years ago in which Brian Souter and elements of the media were able to peddle their homophobic and hateful (and also rather spurious) arguments that the abolition of Section 2A of the Education Act would create some kind of morally decadent society in which children wouldn't be safe from predators, etc., etc. While there remain some with homophobic attitudes, I can't imagine such homophobia would be able to appeal to mainstream opinion in the same way.

Politically, with the possible exception of the Conservative Party, I can't envisage any of the Scottish political parties being opposed in principle to the kind of equality being proposed by Lynne Featherstone. I don't see the public having any real issue with it - most Scots are sensible people who fully appreciate the benefits of greater equality. The only question is whether the Scottish Government has the appetite and the willingness to make marriage equality a priority.

Caron hopes that this policy will feature in our manifesto for Holyrood. I'm sure it will. I also hope that Labour and the SNP will welcome the developments in England and seek to replicate them in Scotland. The Westminster coalition has taken a positive lead - Holyrood must now follow suit. I am confident that it will, especially if the public demand progress.

I have limited knowledge of Northern Ireland. It is difficult to imagine a broad political consensus on this issue though, as some of the principal political protagonists (e.g. the DUP and the UUP) are not known to be quite so progressive on issues such as gay rights. While I reject assumptions that Ulster is deeply sectarian (it isn't, whatever some would want us to think), I would guess that the influence of churches opposed to liberalising the law is much greater than here in Scotland. I'm not sure what the public's attitude is to gay equality in Northern Ireland - while I would suppose that social attitudes are changing across the UK irrespective of antiquated sectarianism, it is vital that all of us who strongly believe in the principle of gay marriage openly champion it. I suspect the NI Assembly isn't going to act unless pressed into doing so.

This is a real challenge for those of us who are Christians (and I know many gay Christians): we have to change the church from the inside. Just as I would encourage all Scots to appeal to our MSPs and our government to bring our legislation in line with England and Wales, so too I would appeal to liberally-minded Christians to keep up the pressure for reform within their churches.

What is so un-Christian about the principles of justice and freedom? Or people being treated equally? And what is really wrong with a "broad church"; why can't the church be accepting of differing views rather than imposing an orthodoxy and manipulating how people perceive Christian morality? The more Christians that speak out against institutional homophobia, the greater chance there is of achieving change which allows gay people to have the same basic rights to celebrate their love as the rest of us.

Of course today's announcement was merely the first step in a long process. It sends out a clear signal to MSPs and MLAs of the need to follow suit. But progress is not only political - it is also social and cultural. We all have a responsibilty to pressurise for change - and to kick homophobia into touch. I hope you'll help us.

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