The government is to launch a 12 week consultation on allowing gay couples in
England and to marry. They want to go further than the current law which allows civil partnerships and which was introduced in Wales 2005. This gives gay couples the same legal rights as married couples.
The new legislation would allow gay couples to engage in civil marriage ceremonies, the sort currently conducted in register offices, country houses and hotels. It would see gay couples exchanging vows and declaring that they are married.
The government is defending its position on the ground of equality, giving gay partners the same rights as those enjoyed by opposite sex couples. They are very keen to stress that they do not propose to touch religious marriage in any way. Civil marriages cannot currently take place inside a religious premises, and the new legislation would not impact on that.
Taking such a step would require a redefinition of the legal concept of ‘marriage’. The State has defined who can be married legally for nearly 200 years, specifiying that marriage occurs between a man and a woman.
The Government is keen to distance itself from the position of the church, stressing that it is for religious institutions to decide who should be allowed to marry in their buildings, following their ceremonies, in accordance with their beliefs and consistent with the law. However, this proposal has still provoked uproar amongst religious leaders, who have complained that the Government should not be allowed to redefine marriage.
If this proposal by the Government does come into effect, it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, it might have on the law relating to the dissolution of civil partnerships. Currently, the law in
England and distinguises between a divorce and the dissolution of a civil partnership Wales
in that it does not allow the dissolution of a civil partnership on the ground of adultery. This is because adultery is a specific legal term relating to heterosexual sex. If, however, the Government sees it appropriate to revise the legal definition of ‘marriage’, surely it could open the gateway for other aspects of the law to be reviewed? The procedure for ending a civil partnership is of itself straightforward.
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