“In a democratic state, all institutions should be open to all people.”
- Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle
Recent weeks have seen a myriad of challenges to UK civil partnership legislation on the basis that the existing legislative arrangement infringes rights to privacy, freedom of religion and non-discrimination. Here’s an overview of some of the legal and political disputes currently at the centre of heated debate on the other side of the Irish Sea.
UK Says No to Straight ‘Gay Marriage’
On Tuesday last week (November 24th) Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle (left), an opposite-sex couple, had their hopes of becoming the first straight couple to form a civil partnership in Britain dashed when their application was rejected by their local registry office. In a letter notifying them of their ineligibility to apply for a civil partnership, Islington registry office plainly quashed their aspiration: “Part one of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 states that a civil partnership is a relationship between two people of the same sex and therefore we would not be able to take notice of your proposed civil partnership.”
The couple from Holloway, London filed their application as a challenge to the segregative systems of legal recognition of couples in the UK based on their sexual orientation, e.g. same-sex couples are banned from marrying and opposite-sex couples are banned from entering a civil partnership. The disappointed couple will be launching a legal challenge to the refusal before the British courts and thereafter, if necessary, before the European Court of Human Rights. The couple’s human rights under Articles 8, 12 and 14—namely, the rights to privacy in family life, marriage and non-discimination—of the European Convention of Human Rights (which became a charter of legally binding human rights in the UK by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998) are arguably being infringed unduly. Peter Tatchell and UK LGBT group OutRage are backing the couple.
The most vehement resistance to equality among couples unsurprisingly comes from religious objectors. In the UK, the chief adversary is the Church of England. Adrian Tippetts writing for The Guardian earlier this week synopsised the inherent hypocrisy in the Church’s position:
“It is ironic that the greatest obstacle in the fight for marriage comes from religious quarters, especially the Church of England, which owes its existence to Henry VIII’s serial womanising.”
Religious Objection: Freedom of Conscience or Freedom to Discriminate?
Opposition to legal recognition and, Lord forbid, social acceptance of same-sex relationships is still alive, kicking and screaming in the UK. Recently, the London Borough of Islington was again at the centre of contentious debate over civil partnerships. In this instance, Lillian Ladele (left), a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages at London Borough of Islington challenged her employer before the Employment Appeal Tribunal for unfair treatment in circumstances where her employer expected her to carry out civil partnership ceremonies which she objected to on the basis that they were “contrary to God’s law”. Last December, the tribunal found that Islington council had been entitled to regard her conduct as “unacceptable discrimination”. Ladele has since appealed that decision to the Court of Appeal. Naeema Choudry, partner in London-based and internationally-operating law firm Eversheds commented on the December decision of the EAT:
“The Employment Appeal Tribunal stressed that employers should not be forced to compromise their commitment to equal opportunities to accommodate the wishes of an individual employee, even where those wishes are based on a strong religious conviction.”
The case may sound like a farcical misuse of human rights instruments to secure a “right to discriminate” as an extension of the freedom of religious conscience but the case is being taken very seriously and could potentially go before the UK Supreme Court. The decision of the Court of Appeal will have far-reaching applications no matter which way it decides. Of course, if it finds in Ladele’s favour, it will have extremely harmful ramifications, e.g. to the right of all people to be afforded the public services they are entitled to without fear of reproach or hostility. A decision from the Court of Appeal is expected before the end of the year.
Religious Institutions: Let Love in!
UK Civil Partnership legislation is at the centre of a third challenge which comes from UK-based LGB lobby group, Stonewall, which recently launched a campaign (November 18th) to repeal part of the Civil Partnership Act 2005 because—as a matter of law and not religious prerogative—civil partnerships are automatically precluded from being held in religious buildings. Stonewall are seeking to secure an amendment overturning the compulsory exclusion in the Equality Bill which will soon be navigating its way through the Houses of Parliament. The amendment would allow ministers to be given the option of presiding over ceremonies and effectively remove the inherently secular nature of civil partnerships.
Civil partnerships are the compromise to both sides of the civil marriage debate (principally LGBT rights campaigners and orthodox religions) and based upon the foregoing, neither side is satisfied with this middle-of-the-road remedy. But can homosexuality and religion ever see eye-to-eye? Common wisdom is doubtful but in light of the ecumenical statement made by Liverpool’s Catholic Archbishop Patrick Kelly and Anglican Bishop James Jones in response to recent homophobic violence in that community, there is hope. In unequivocal language, the bishops placed the lives of gay people squarely on the same footing as religious and ethnic groups:
“[I]t is wrong for anyone in the community of which we are all part to be victimised, or threatened with victimisation, on account of their race, creed, colour or sexual orientation.”