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At common law a marriage between persons of the same sex was void ab initio. In 1680, Arabella Hunt married "James Howard"; in 1682 the marriage was annulled on the ground that Howard was in fact Amy Poulter, a 'perfect woman in all her parts', and two women could not validly marry. In 1866, in Hyde v. Hyde and Woodmansee (a case of polygamy), Lord Penzance's judgment began "Marriage as understood in Christendom is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others."
In Talbot (otherwise Poyntz) v. Talbot in 1967, the prohibition was held to extend where one spouse was a post-operative transsexual, with Mr Justice Ormerod stating "Marriage is a relationship which depends on sex, not on gender". In 1971 the Nullity of Marriage Act was passed, explicitly banning marriages between same-sex couples in England and Wales. The parliamentary debates on the 1971 act included discussion on the issue of transsexualism but not homosexuality.
The 1971 act was later replaced by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which also declared that a marriage is void if the parties are not respectively male and female. Prohibition of same-sex marriages was also included in the marriage legislation of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Marriage Act (Scotland) 1977 and the Marriage Order (Northern Ireland) 2003 both state there is a legal impediment to marriage if the parties are of the same sex.
On 17 July 2013, Her Majesty the Queen granted Royal Assent to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. On 10 December 2013 the British Government announced that the first same sex marriages could take place from 29 March 2014.
In 2004 the Civil Partnership Act was passed and came into effect in December 2005. It created civil partnerships, which gave same-sex couples who entered into them the same rights and responsibilities of marriage. These partnerships were called 'gay marriage' by some of the British media; however, the government made clear that they were not marriages.
When Section 9 of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 comes into force, it will grant anyone who is registered in a civil partnership the ability to convert that partnership into a marriage.
On 26 August 2003, Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson, both British university professors, legally married in British Columbia, Canada. However, on their return their marriage was not recognised under British law. Under the subsequent Civil Partnership Act, it was instead converted into a civil partnership. The couple sued for recognition of their marriage, arguing that it was legal in the country in which it was executed and met the requirements for recognition of overseas marriages and should thus be treated in the same way as one between opposite-sex couples. They rejected the conversion of their marriage into a civil partnership believing it to be both practically and symbolically a lesser substitute. They were represented by the civil rights group Liberty. The group's legal director James Welch said it was a matter of fairness and equality for the couple's marriage to be recognised and that they "shouldn't have to settle for the second-best option of a civil partnership."
The High Court announced its judgement on 31 July 2006, ruling that their union would not be granted marriage status and would continue to be recognised in England and Wales as a civil partnership. The President of the Family Division, Sir Mark Potter, gave as his reason that "abiding single sex relationships are in no way inferior, nor does English Law suggest that they are by according them recognition under the name of civil partnership", and that marriage was an "age-old institution" which, he suggested, was by "longstanding definition and acceptance" a relationship between a man and a woman. He agreed with the couple's claim that they were being discriminated against by the Civil Partnership Act 2004, but considered that "To the extent that by reason of that distinction it discriminates against same-sex partners, such discrimination has a legitimate aim, is reasonable and proportionate, and falls within the margin of appreciation accorded to Convention States." The Attorney General, as Second Respondent, sought £25,000 in legal costs from the couple, which the High Court ordered them to pay.
Wilkinson and Kitzinger said they were "deeply disappointed" with the judgement, not just for themselves, but for "lesbian and gay families across the nation." They said that "denying our marriage does nothing to protect heterosexual marriage, it simply upholds discrimination and inequality" and also said that the ruling insulted LGBT people and treats their relationships as inferior to heterosexual ones; not worthy of marriage but only of an "expressly different, and entirely separate institution." They said, however, that they believed the judgement "won't stand the test of time" and that they looked forward to the day when "there is full equality in marriage." They had originally announced their intention to appeal the decision but later abandoned it due to lack of funds.
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said that the establishment's aggressive opposition to same-sex marriage and the successful demand of £25,000 from the couple damaged the government's "gay-friendly credentials". He also claimed that the demand in legal costs was designed to damage the couple financially so they would not be able to appeal. He said he was "angry but not downcast" about the ruling and that this was only a temporary setback in the "long struggle for marriage equality."
Equal Marriage, a campaign for same-sex marriage in Scotland, was established by the Equality Network in 2008, with a focus on securing same-sex marriage and mixed-sex civil partnership in Scotland. In England and Wales, the first major campaign for same-sex marriage was Equal Love established by Peter Tatchell in 2010. The first major campaign against same-sex marriage in Britain was Scotland for Marriage established in 2011, followed by the Coalition for Marriage in England and Wales in 2012. Subsequent campaigns for and against same-sex marriage have been established by a wide variety of organisations, including the Coalition for Equal Marriage and Out4Marriage, both established in England in 2012. In Northern Ireland, a campaign for full same-sex marriage was established by LGBT rights activist and political campainger Gary Spedding in June 2012 with the specific goal of challenging social attitudes whilst lobbying the Northern Ireland Assembly to enact legislation to update the Marriage Order (Northern Ireland) 2003
Conservative: During the run-up to the 2010 general election the then Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said that a Conservative government would be happy to "consider the case" for ending the ban on same-sex marriage, although he was criticised for not making any specific promises. On 4 May 2010 the party published a "Contract for Equalities" which said it would 'consider' recognising civil partnerships as marriage if elected.
Labour: In April 2010 Labour Minister for Equality Harriet Harman when asked about same-sex marriage said the issue was a "developing area" and that the government still had a long way to go with what it had done with gay rights. Then Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the government did not allow same-sex marriage because it was "intimately bound up with questions of religious freedom". During the 2010 Labour leadership election campaign, each of the Labour candidates expressed their support for reform to lead to the recognition of same-sex marriage. Following Ed Miliband's victory it has become Labour party policy, with the party welcoming the Government's consultation and calling for legislation to be brought forth as soon as possible.
Liberal Democrats: Leader Nick Clegg stated in 2009 that his party backs legalisation. On 4 July 2009 in an article for LabourList, Clegg wrote that "although civil partnerships have been a step forward, until same sex marriage is permitted it is impossible to claim gay and straight couples are treated equally." Following this, the party's LGBT equality body DELGA launched a petition "Marriage Without Borders" calling for all gender restrictions on marriage and civil partnerships to be lifted, and for same-sex relationships to be recognised across Europe and internationally. The petition was run at Manchester Pride and Reading Pride in 2009, and launched online in January 2010 following an interview with Clegg in Attitude magazine in which he reaffirmed his commitment to equal marriage. However this did not make it into the party's manifesto. In an interview in July 2010 Lib Dem deputy party leader Simon Hughes confirmed that the coalition government plans to open marriage to same-sex couples, saying, "It would be appropriate in Britain in 2010, 2011, for there to be the ability for civil marriage for straight people and gay people equally ... The state ought to give equality. We’re halfway there. I think we ought to be able to get there in this parliament".
Scottish Liberal Democrats: At their 2010 spring conference a motion was passed calling on the Scottish Government to allow gay couples to marry, describing the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage as a "discrimination that needs to end". In September 2010, the Liberal Democrats at their Autumn Federal Conference voted to make marriage equality a party policy at the Westminster level.
Green Party: On 22 May 2009 the Green Party called for an end to the ban on civil marriages between same-sex couples in Britain and in other EU member states. Party leader Caroline Lucas said the party wants marriage equality for same-sex couples and that married gay couples who travel throughout Europe should be able to have their relationship recognised on the same basis as married heterosexual couples. Peter Tatchell, who was the party's candidate for Oxford East at the time, said there is a "confusing patchwork" of different partnership laws throughout Europe and that "for a majority of lesbian and gay couples their legal rights stop at their own borders". He said, the "best and most universally recognised system of partnership" is civil marriage and, "anything less is second class and discrimination".
At their Yearly Meeting in 2009, the Quakers decided to recognise opposite-sex and same-sex marriages equally and perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, making them the first mainstream religious body in Britain to do so. Under the current law registrars are not allowed to legally officiate a marriage between same-sex couples but the Quakers stated that the law does not preclude them from "playing a central role in the celebration and recording of same-sex marriages" and asked the government to change the law so that these marriages would be recognised. In a joint press release in 2012, the Quakers, Liberal Jews, and Unitarians and Free Christians gave their endorsement to the same-sex marriage consultation.
The largest Christian denominations have been wholly opposed to the legalisation of same-sex marriages. The Catholic Church in England and Wales has been most vocal in its opposition, urging both parishioners and schools within its care to sign the petition against the government plans. The Church of England is largely against the plans to legalise same-sex marriage and is concerned that its legalisation will undermine its status as the state religion of England. The Methodist Church of Great Britain, in responding to the government's consultation on same-sex marriage, acknowledge that many Methodist churches had, over the last 20 years, affirmed and celebrated the participation of gays and lesbians in a union, but noted that the Methodist church could not use the word "marriage" with reference to same-sex unions.
The Muslim Council of Britain has launched a campaign against the legalisation of same-sex marriage called "Muslims Defending Marriage". The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue have also come out in opposition of the plans, stating that same-sex marriage is "against Jewish law".
Opinion polls have shown general support for same-sex marriage among Britons.
A 2004 poll by Gallup reported that 52% agreed that 'marriages between homosexuals' should be recognised while 45% said they should not. Support for same-sex marriage among British respondents was 17% higher than people in the USA who were asked. The poll found that 65% supported allowing gay couples to form civil unions. A 2006 Eurobarometer survey reported that 46% of Britons agreed the same-sex marriages should be allowed throughout Europe, support being slightly higher than the EU average of 44%. A poll conducted in September 2008 by ICM Research for The Observer found that 55% of Britons believed that same-sex couples should be allowed to get married while 45% disagreed.
An opinion poll conducted in June 2009 by Populus for The Times reported 61% of the British public agreed with the statement 'Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships', while 33% disagreed. Support was highest among those aged between 25 and 34 where 78% agreed and 19% disagreed. It was lowest amongst those over 65 where 37% agreed and 52% disagreed. A majority of both men and women agreed but support was higher among women (67%) than men (55%). On voting intention, 73% Liberal Democrats, 64% Labour voters and 53% Conservatives agreed that gay couples should have the right to marry.
A poll conducted by Angus Reid in July 2010 showed that 78% of people supported either same-sex marriage or civil union for gay couples, with 41% opting for same-sex marriage and 37% opting for civil union. The amount of people who supported no legal unions for gay couples decreased by 3% since August 2009.
According to the 2010 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 61% of Scotland's population supports same-sex marriage. Just 19% said they disagreed, while 18% said they neither agreed nor disagreed. In a similar poll in 2002, 42% of Scotland's population supported same-sex marriage. In 2006, 53% of Scots backed same-sex marriage.
In July 2011, a representative survey conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion showed that 43% of Britons believe same-sex couples in Britain should be allowed to legally marry, 34% think same-sex couples should be allowed to form civil partnerships, but not marry, and 15% would grant no legal recognition to same-sex couples.
A poll published by YouGov in March 2012 showed that 43% of people supported same-sex marriage whilst 32% supported civil partnerships. 16% were opposed to the recognition of homosexual relations all together. Support was particularly high amongst women, young people, people in Scotland and supporters of the Liberal Democrats. Support was lower amongst the working class, Conservative voters, men and older people. In the same poll, 62% believed that homosexual relationships had the same value as heterosexual ones, but 47% of people supported the right of the Church of England to defend traditional marriage and 37% disagreed.
A June 2012 YouGov survey shows highly accepting attitudes of the British population toward LGBT rights. The report found that 71% are in favour of same-sex marriage. Two YouGov polls in December 2012 found that 55% of the population was in favour of introducing same-sex marriage.
Another poll in May 2013 again confirmed public support for the bill with 53% in favour of the introduction of same sex marriage. A second poll in May showed a similar support of 54%, also showing that 58% of people who considered same sex marriage an important election issue would be more likely to vote for a party supporting it. A May 2013 Ipsos poll found that 55% of respondents were in favour of same-sex marriage.
In January 2009, a petition was drawn up by Nick Henderson, director of gay rights group the LGBT Network, to be submitted to the Scottish Parliament. The petition called for a change to the law that disallows two people of the same sex from getting married, by amending the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977. The petition also called for allowing same-sex marriage ceremonies to be performed by faith groups, but only if the religious institution gives consent. As well as political support from the Leader of the Labour Party in the European Parliament, Glenis Willmott MEP and veteran gay rights activist Michael Cashman MEP, the petition has drawn the signatures and support of Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson and of eight church leaders, both Episcopalian and Church of Scotland. The Very Reverend Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of the Scottish Episcopal St Mary's Cathedral in Glasgow, has often spoken of his willingness and desire to perform valid same sex marriages in his church, and is a key supporter of the petition. It also attracted high profile support from Labour MSP George Foulkes. The petition closed on 6 March, having gathered 1007 signatures.
On 17 March 2009, the Petitions Committee unanimously agreed to question the Scottish Government on whether and when it planned to amend the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977 to allow same sex marriages. They also requested that a reason be provided if an amendment could not be considered.
In March 2009, shortly before submission of the LGBT Network's petition to the Scottish Parliament, NUS Scotland established an Equal Marriage Campaign, launching a similar petition to the Scottish Parliament and calling for the amendment of legislation to allow same-sex marriage and mixed-sex civil partnerships in Scotland, although the petition itself did not distinguish between civil and religious marriage. This campaign attracted the support of a number of MSPs and MEPs, as well as activist organisations and individuals. The petition closed on 1 September 2009, having gathered 1,317 signatures. On 8 September the Petitions Committee convened after a summer recess, and agreed to contact the Government seeking responses to specific points raised in both petitions and the discussion.
On 1 December 2009, the Petitions Committee decided to seek a meeting between a government minister and the petitioners, as well as enquire as to whether the Government might consider setting up an advisory committee of interested parties. The Government rejected the petition, as legalising same-sex marriage in Scotland only would require changes in non-devolved matters such as the areas of immigration, pensions and inheritance law all of which would have to be done at national level. The head of the government's equality unit Hilary Third said that although from an equalities point of view "equal marriage is where we want to be" it would be a "difficult situation" if same-sex marriage was legal in Scotland but not England. In 2011 Her Majesty's Government announced a consultation on the legalising of same-sex marriage in England and Wales would be held, and it began in March 2012.
From September – December 2011 the Scottish Government held a consultation on the issue after the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found 60% of Scots to be in favour of legalising same-sex marriages in Scotland. The consultation offered consideration on both removing religious prohibitions for civil partnerships and also legalising same-sex marriage within that country. In the foreword to the consultation document, Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon stated
"The Scottish Government is choosing to make its initial views clear at the outset of this consultation. We tend towards the view that religious ceremonies for civil partnerships should no longer be prohibited and that same sex marriage should be introduced so that same sex couples have the option of getting married if that is how they wish to demonstrate their commitment to each other. We also believe that no religious body or its celebrants should be required to carry out same sex marriages or civil partnership ceremonies."
Unlike the English and Welsh Consultation, the one for Scotland dealt with the issue of same-sex marriage in a religious context. On 10 December 2011, The Scotsman newspaper reported that some 50,000 responses had been received from within Scotland. In reality, when counting was finished, the total stood at 77,508. The Government presented the results and analysis of the consultation in July 2012. Respondents who opposed the introduction of same sex marriage were in the majority, with 67%. However, 14,869 (19%) of responses came from outside of Scotland and 26,383 (34%) were submitted by a pre-printed postcard rather than via the Consultation form.
On 25 July 2012 the Scottish Government announced it would bring forward legislation to legalise both civil and religious same-sex marriage in Scotland. The Government reiterated its intention to ensure that no religious group or individual member of the clergy would be forced to conduct such ceremonies; it also stated its intention to work with Westminster to make necessary changes to the Equality Act to ensure that this would be guaranteed.
On 27 June 2013, the Scottish Government introduced the Marriage and Civil Partnerships Bill (Scotland) in the Scottish Parliament. LGBT rights campaigners, celebrating outside the UK parliament on 15 July 2013 for the clearance of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in the House of Lords, declared that they would continue the campaign to extend same-sex marriage rights to both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The majority of the members of the Scottish Parliament have declared their support for same-sex marriage, including the leader of each party in Parliament: Alex Salmond (SNP; First Minister of Scotland), Johann Lamont (Labour), Ruth Davidson (Conservative), Willie Rennie (Liberal Democrats) and Patrick Harvie (Green).
The bill was fast-tracked through the Scottish Parliament with the aim of achieving Royal Assent for the legislation by March 2014. The Equal Opportunities Committee considered the bill from 5 September to 7 November, with a report published on 8 November. On 20 November, the bill passed Stage 1 with a 98 to 15 vote and 5 abstentions. Of the 98 MSP's that voted "yes" on the bill, 52 were members of the Scottish National Party, 31 were members of the Labour Party, 7 were members of the Conservative Party, 4 were members of the Liberal Democrats Party, 2 were members of the Green Party, and 2 were Independents. Of the 15 MSP's that voted "no" on the bill, 6 were members of the Scottish National Party, 8 were members of the Conservative Party, and 1 was a member of the Labour Party. Of the 5 MSP's that abstained, 2 were members of the Scottish National Party, and 3 were members of the Labour Party.
The bill returned to the Equal Opportunities Committee for Stage 2. The Committee considered the bill on 19 December 2013, rejecting several amendments proposed by opponents of the legislation. The Committee continued Stage 2 on 16 January 2014. The final Stage 3 debate and vote was held on 4 February 2014. The bill was approved with 105 MSPs in favour and 18 opposed, with no abstentions. The first same-sex marriages are expected to occur in autumn 2014. When Royal Assent is formally granted by Her Majesty The Queen, the bill will officially become an Act of the Scottish Parliament.
An amendment to the Equality Act 2010 tabled by Labour peer Waheed Alli, Baron Alli removed the restriction on religious bodies blessing same-sex civil unions in England and Wales, but was not implemented on commencement of the bill. Liberal Democrat minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone announced in February 2011 that the amendment would be implemented along with other reforms to marriage law and LGBT equality, including allowing night-time marriages and deleting old convictions for sodomy under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.
On 17 September 2011, at the Liberal Democrat party conference, Lynne Featherstone announced that the government would launch a consultation in March 2012 on how to implement equal civil marriage for same-sex couples with the intention of any legislative changes being made by the next general election. The Prime Minister's Office let it be known that David Cameron had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex unions, and on 5 October 2011 the Conservative Party Conference applauded Cameron's support for gay marriage in his Leader's Speech.
On 12 March 2012, the government launched its consultation on equal civil marriage in England and Wales. The government's proposals were:
The following groups and individuals expressed their support for same-sex marriage legislation in England and Wales:
The following parties and newspapers expressed their opposition to same-sex marriage legislation in England and Wales:
The following parties had no official position or a position of neutrality on either the issue or the legislation as it applies to England and Wales:
On 11 December 2012, the Government released its response to the consultation. Of the 228,000 responses to the consultation, via the online form, email or correspondence, 53 percent agreed that all couples, regardless of their gender should be able to have a civil marriage ceremony, 46 percent disagreed, and one percent were unsure or did not answer the question. The Government also confirmed that it separately received nineteen petitions from faith groups and organisations such as the Coalition for Marriage, with over 500,000 signatures opposing same-sex marriage.
On 11 December 2012, the Minister for Women and Equalities, Secretary of State Maria Miller announced that the Government would bring forward same-sex marriage legislation for England and Wales in early 2013. In response to the consultation results, the proposals were extended to allow religious organisations to opt into performing same-sex marriages if they wish, and a 'quadruple-lock' of additional measures to put the protection of religious freedoms "utterly beyond doubt". These are:
HM Government also addressed consultation responses about the possibility that the European Court of Human Rights could force all churches to marry same-sex couples, stating:
Both the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights put the protection of religious belief in this matter beyond doubt. We will draft the legislation to ensure that there is a negligible chance of a successful legal challenge in any domestic court, or the ECtHR that would force any religious organisation to conduct marriages for same-sex couples against their will. Any possible claims would be brought against the Government, rather than an organisation to ensure religious organisations would not have to use their resources to fight any legal challenges.—Equal marriage: The Government's response, December 2012
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On 24 January 2013, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was introduced to the Commons by Maria Miller, and a full debate occurred at the Second Reading on 5 February. The bill retains some distinctions from marriage between a man and a woman e.g. in divorce proceedings, adultery can only involve sexual conduct between two persons of the opposite sex, while non-consummation will not be grounds for divorce.
On 5 February 2013, the bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons by 400 votes to 175.
The Bill was examined in 13 sittings by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill Committee, a Public Bill Committee established to scrutinise the Bill line by line. The Bill completed its committee stage on 12 March 2013 and had its report stage in the House of Commons on 20–21 May 2013. The third reading took place on 21 May, and was approved by 366 votes to 161, with the bill receiving its first reading in the House of Lords the same evening.
The bill had its second reading unopposed in the Lords on 4 June, after a "wrecking amendment" proposed by Lord Dear was defeated by a vote of 390–148, thus allowing the bill to proceed to the committee stage.
The bill passed its third reading in the House of Lords on 15 July 2013 and the Commons accepted all of the Lords' amendments on the following day, with Royal Assent granted on 17 July 2013.
On 10 December 2013 Minister Maria Miller of The Department of Culture, Media and Sport announced that same sex marriage ceremonies would begin on 29 March 2014 in England and Wales. The parts of the law that will allow civil partnerships to be converted into marriages, and allow married people to change their legal gender while remaining married, will come into force at a later date before the end of 2014. Couples wishing to be among the first to marry will need to give formal notice of their intention by 13 March 2014.