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Monday, 20 February 2012

Same-sex marriage again

For Halsbury's Law Exchange

Last year the Scottish government began a consultation process asking if marriage in Scotland should be allowed for gay people through a civil or religious ceremony. The strength of opposing feelings on the issue is hinted at by the fact that on Valentine’s Day more than 1,000 people marched through Edinburgh in favour of the idea, whereas last year a pressure group calling itself “Scotland For Marriage” held a rally outside the Scottish Parliament to protest against it.

The issue has also been debated recently in Australia. Meanwhile the Nigerian government has not simply banned same-sex marriage, it has actually made the idea a criminal offence, with a penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment for any person who enters into a same-sex marriage contract or civil union. Apparently even that law was thought insufficient, and a separate offence was therefore passed which made “witness[ing], abet[ting] or aid[ing] the solemnization of same-sex-marriage” punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

It remains the case in the United Kingdom under s 11(c) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 that a marriage can be entered into only by a male and a female, but there have been significant developments over the past decade or so.

The first was the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides:

Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right.

Article 12 does not settle the issue because the European Court of Human Rights has decided (in Schalk and Kopf v. Austria) that it is a matter for national authorities to decide whether to allow same-sex marriage. The court’s reasoning was based in part on the fact that there was no consensus across member states on the issue (some, such as Spain, already allow same-sex marriages, but others do not).

More significant in the UK was the passing of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which allowed same-sex couples to enter into a union conferring the same legal rights as marriage in the area of wills, tax and so on. Interestingly, the right to enter into civil unions was restricted to same-sex couples, even though the form of partnership – legal rights with no religious implications – might equally appeal to some heterosexual couples.

The next step was the lifting the restriction on conducting civil partnerships on religious premises by an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 – though (at least at present) no religious institution can be compelled to conduct them.

The remaining question is of course the most emotive of all: whether same-sex marriage will be recognised in law, and if so, whether that step will be taken (and supported) by Parliament or by the courts.

It is next to impossible to imagine that the courts will find a right to same-sex marriage in any existing domestic statute, and given that the European Court of Human Rights explicitly refused to find such a right in the Convention, that option will not be taken by the domestic courts either. Even if the courts did take the step themselves, if Parliament disagreed it could either refuse to recognise the court’s ruling (if it came from Europe) or legislate to overrule it (if it came from a domestic court).

Realistically therefore the only way a change will come about will be by an amendment by Parliament to the 1973 Act. One would expect the robust debate in Scotland to be mirrored in the rest of the country before any such step is taken.

In previous articles on the subject I have suggested a possible solution along the lines of France, to separate church and state completely with regard to marriage. The legal contract of marriage should be signed in a registry office only. Thereafter, at any time(s) and place(s) of their choosing, couples could perform any ceremony they wish at any religious or non religious venue.

The well known American lawyer Alan Dershowitz advanced a similar view a few years ago, going one step further by arguing that the state should only confer civil partnerships, and leave the dispensing of the word “marriage” to the free market.

Either solution would mean that religious groups would not consider marriage to be valid, other than as a legal nicety, unless their own blessing had been bestowed in accordance with their own tenets. Non-religious people would be happy as they would have the legal right to the word “marriage” without any religious connotation.

No doubt many will disagree, but in response I would simply say that removing state control of the issue would leave it to the marketplace of ideas.

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