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Monday, 14 February 2011

Gay marriage equality set to become reality

Equality minister Lynne Featherstone has indicated that the ban on same-sex marriage is to be lifted, as well as announcing that the law will change to allow civil partnerships to take place in religious buildings.

This is great news. When these changes become law, the two-tier system which effectively discriminates against homosexuality will become history. Civil partnerships were a significant step forward, but ultimately there is no reason why in a democratic society all people should not have the same legal rights to be married. It is also welcome that the the package includes plans for heterosexual couples to have the right to civil partnerships.

This follows on from the debate at Liberal Democrat Conference in September, when the party voted overwhelmingly to approve same-sex marriage. It is fitting that it is Lynne Featherstone who is introducing these overdue reforms as she has been a tireless campaigner on the issue for some time.

This is a real step forward for gay and lesbian freedom. Featherstone is to announce a "timetable" for these proposals on Thursday, which will also provide more detail about what is actually on the table. But it is absolutely certain that the plans will eradicate the discriminatory laws that currently don't afford gay people equal status under the law.

However, while the law will allow religious denominations to conduct same-sex partnerships they will not be forced to conduct them. The Church of England (that forward looking and progressive agent for the promotion of Christian tolerance) has already spoken out and declared that none of its buildings will be used for same-sex ceremonies. The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has predictably opposed the plans, claiming that they "attempt to change our entire definition of family life". Yes...well, perhaps it's your narrow definition that needs changing? The Church of Scotland has retained a considered silence on the matter, other than to say that "if the law in Scotland were to change, the Church of Scotland would have to consider its response." Hmmmm...

I can only wonder what Brian Souter makes of all this.

While these attitudes are unhelpful, enforced adherence to new laws would be counter-productive. I strongly believe that, in this case at least, "the inevitability of gradualism" will see attitudes change over time as same-sex religious ceremonies become normalised. There's no point lecturing the likes of the Catholic Church on matters of equality. My hope is that eventually the practical and tolerant outlook of other denominations such as the Quakers - who have been calling for these changes - will become more representative of thought across the spectrum of Christian denominations.

It seams that so far the proposals only relate to England. However, as with the case of the repeal of Section 28 (2A in Scotland), changes in England will surely create a momentum for similar reform here.

I was proud to belong to a party that was willing to discuss this issue so openly (I just can't see the Conservatives having the courage to address it at their own conference). I am now equally proud that a Lib Dem minister is introducing liberal proposals to ensure legal equality for LGBT people - something I doubt a Tory majority government would have given much attention to.

Thank you Lynne!

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