Same Difference?

Publish Date: 07/12/2011

Over 40,000 Civil Partnerships have taken place in the UK since December 2005 and currently the law is changing to allow those religious premises (that wish to do so) in England and Wales to host same-sex civil partnerships. The UK government also plan to hold a formal consultation into same-sex civil marriage in 2012.

There is much debate at the moment about civil partnerships in religious settings and although many people mistakenly liken civil partnerships to same-sex marriage, there are differences.

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 creates a system that segregates couples into two separate legal institutions, with different names. The segregation of couples is based on their sexual orientations: same-sex couples are excluded from marriage, and different-sex couples are excluded from civil partnership.

Heterosexual couples can get married because by law 'marriage' is defined as the union of one man and one woman.

One main issue is that civil partnership is not called ‘marriage’, so that gay men and lesbians are immediately identified as different.

Although most forms have one tick box for “married/civil partner”, there is no law that demands this and so same-sex couples can often be ignored.

Civil marriages are ‘solemnized’ by saying a form of words and then formalised by signing the register, whereas civil partnerships are formed simply by signing the register – there is no obligation to say a form of words. Marriage and civil partnership certificates are also different in format.

Civil partnerships place no requirement for a ceremony to take place. Couples can however arrange a ceremony in addition if they wish.

A civil partnership is defined through its registration process and does not (as marriage does) come with vows to commit for life, although many couples choose to say some similar words before they register as part of the ceremony.

Also, there is no definition of what the quality of the relationship of civil partners entails and with civil partnerships there is no duty to cohabit or commit to a sexual relationship, which are implied in marriage.

Adultery is not grounds for dissolving a civil partnership whereas it is for divorce.

Non-consummation is also a reason to annul a marriage but not for civil partnership, which means civil partnerships can be entirely chaste to be fully legal which is not the case with marriage.

Rights were designed to be equivalent but there is a technical issue around private pension schemes and from what date benefits can start accruing from – this isn’t thought to affect huge numbers of people and is an issue the Government Equalities Office (GEO) is looking to resolve.

There are also differences with international recognition. Heterosexual marriages are recognised automatically overseas but this isn’t the case with civil partnerships. Having same sex marriages may, or may not, improve recognition of same sex unions overseas. The GEO are currently working with all countries on trying to improve mutual recognition of same sex unions.

When it comes to religious marriage, couples can marry in Church of England churches without involving their local register office. If couples are marrying in any other religious building they have to give formal notice to the superintendent registrar at the local register office.

Different faiths have various rules on weddings, for example you can only marry in a Catholic Church if you intend to have children and intend to bring up the children in the Catholic faith.

In Church of England weddings an announcement of the upcoming wedding is usually read out on the three preceding Sundays to the ceremony – this is called reading the banns.

All other marriages and civil partnerships have to give 15 days public notice of their upcoming union, usually on a notice board at the register office.

Civil marriages and civil partnerships are currently banned from using any religious songs or symbols etc. Civil Partnerships may be able to be held on religious premises that want to hold them, depending on the outcome of the challenge made to these regulations currently before the House of Lords and The House of Commons.

True equality cannot be realised if the way relationships are legally recognised are called something different, and if they are only open to certain groups.

All relationships should be valued and treated with dignity and respect – but while same sex relationships are legally bound by civil partnerships and heterosexual relationships are legally bound by marriage – it represents that these relationships are not on a level playing field, they are not viewed as the same – they are unequal.

That’s why marriage equality is so important – it recognises that all relationships are the same and that they are as important as each other.

But still religious marriage is not open to same-sex people, which highlights the difference between heterosexual relationships and same-sex ones.

Also, this does not take into account heterosexual couples who want to enter into a civil partnership, perhaps because they want legal protections, but don’t agree with the institution of marriage.

Again, people should have equal access and opportunity to enter into a civil marriage, religious marriage or civil partnership – regardless of sexual orientation. 

For trans communities, same sex civil marriage would resolve some issues that trans couples have in terms of having to dissolve marriages/civil partnerships when one or both partners receive their Gender Recognition Certificate.

It is truly a  testament to how far lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans rights have come when proposals for same-sex marriage are being discussed in government on a national level.

However, we must not be complacent and see same-sex marriage as a foregone conclusion – we must fight to ensure that this gets through both Houses of Parliament, then we’ll start to see the move towards true equality.