Life&Style Writer Lydia Waller discusses the government’s new agreement to make civil partnerships available to heterosexual couples
Both heterosexual and homosexual couples in England and Wales are now entitled to civil partnerships as a form of romantic union. Four years ago homosexual couples were not entitled to the straight privilege of marriage and even earlier, were deprived of the right to a civil union outside of the Church. The Church and organised religion has played a central role in the romantic and life-long legal unions of couples in Britain and has been egged on by the progression of society, to open its sacramental doors to non-heterosexual couples.
Naturally the legalisation of gay marriages and civil partnerships was followed by celebration from the LGBTQ+ community and majority of wider British society, as a step towards an equilibrium in 21st century social politics. And rightly so. Yet this step further in inclusivity and equality stimulated the recognition of more imbalances in our governmental constitution, on legal partnerships; the straights’ automatic legitimisation as a couple in the Church, meant they could only receive union in the form of ‘marriage,’ a religious concept. Those who didn’t believe in marriage due to its religious and patriarchal associations, couldn’t be unified in the eyes of the government. But homosexuals could. It seemed like the tables had turned for a moment.
Yet one resilient and determined couple highlighted this imbalance in the law; Rebecca Stienfield and Charles Keidan campaigned for four years, to change the legal obligation for straight couples to have to get ‘married,’ even when they do not believe in the religious foundations of the institution. The couple are atheists and therefore did not want to legitimate their union and legal security of their family unit, by an ancient religious sacrament. Some may question, why would an atheist couple be phased by union if they don’t believe in causality or destined love, like religious marriages tend to? The issue really lies in what marriage and government recognised unions are entitled to, in terms of security. Many unmarried couples are at risk of inheriting tax when their significant other passes away, which has led to familial devastation as people have had to sell their whole livelihoods to pay the debt off. Whereas civil partnerships and marriages, reassure couples and families of security and entitlement to benefits and tax credits, as a legally recognised couple. Civil partnerships can also entitle couples to bereavement benefits and retirement pensions, essentially securing families and couples, with a legally recognised union. This is why equity in legal unions, outside of religious institutions, is so important to the security of British civilians. As the Equalities Minister Penny Mordant states, it will give families ‘certainty and security.’
Despite what seems like a long-haul campaign of four years, since Keidan and Stienfield bought the injustice to the forefront of governmental attention, some people do not seem to be jumping for joy at the appeasement of this campaign for heterosexual couples. The Guardian opinion writer Shelley Silas states that many of the LGBTQ+ community are slightly bitter about how quickly, compared to their campaign of 13 years to be entitled to marriage rights that heterosexuals inherently have, the straight demand for rights was fulfilled. Silas states that the heterosexual community weren’t voicing their support when the queer community needed it, so why should they feel obliged to celebrate a privileged community getting what they want, in what may seem like minutes to a historically marginalised community? To some extent this is true, it appears that when the privileged want something it is appeased, but that is not always the case. Haven’t the non-believers also been a minority in a historically Christian country?
Irrespective of clashing views, as a secular society and also for the religious communities, this legislation should be celebrated as a step towards equity in the rights of British citizens and families. The religious and sacramental concept of marriage is no longer enforced upon those who don’t believe in it and the religious concepts are now protected. Statistics sourced by The Guardian also noted how civil partnerships in England and Wales increased last year, by 2%, despite expectations of a decrease due to the legalisation of gay marriages in 2014. Deathbed weddings increased due to the fear of the devastating prospect of inheritance tax, which civil partnerships now ensure the avoidance of.
Stability and recognition are key for couples and families and that should be the case for all. This legislation also protects marriage, as a sacrament for those who believe union to be more spiritual. Yet the privileges and rights that come with marriage status are institutional and therefore should be made available to all. The spiritual witness of marriage should still be protected as a sacrament for those who believe it to be so and not appropriated and used by those who don’t believe in it and seek to reap the legal benefits. It seems like a win-win situation.
There are still a few steps to go until the new legislation is put in place; there has been a small delay as the bill was not fully established until 26th of October. Additionally, Lisa Pepper has realised that civil partnerships do not have the same criteria for ending as marriages do, such as adultery being a reason for ceasing a marriage and not a partnership. This also raises the issue of things such as adultery being a moral concept which is only institutionally frowned upon in a marital and religious sense; can non-religious communities now appropriate religious moral codes in order to benefit from the legality of recognised unions? It is evident that there are some complexities left to be sorted in order to ensure equity on all sides, as well as protect marriage as a separate institution to non-religious civic unions.
All in all, it is a step towards securing the futures and stability of 3.3 million unmarried couples in England and Wales, we should be celebrating.