On 14 February, Valentine’s Day, Stonewall published a draft parliamentary bill for extending the legal form of marriage to gay people. The Bill outlines the legislative steps necessary to give effect to a policy now supported by all party leaders.
Lynne Featherstone MP, the equalities minister, promised last September that formal consultation on extending the legal form of marriage to gay people would begin in March 2012. The proposal has been supported by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.
‘We trust that the government will go ahead with its promised consultation by the end of March,’ said Ben Summerskill, Stonewall Chief Executive. ‘We also trust that the government will publish a White Paper, consulting on the detail of how to implement its proposal, and not a Green Paper which merely consults on the wider principle. This simple two-page Bill of five clauses need not occupy a significant amount of parliamentary time. It could easily be included in the Queen’s Speech in May.’
The Scottish Government has already announced that it intends to extend the legal form of marriage to same-sex couples. If it goes ahead, new legislation tabled in Westminster would only need to apply to England and Wales.
The bill would retain civil partnerships for gay couples and give civil partners the option of converting their union to a marriage. It lists five legislative steps necessary to implement equal marriage and includes exemptions for religious institutions which have been a constant concern in the equal marriage debate.
In the case of civil partnerships, concerns that the specific exemptions afforded to religious institutions would be overridden by broader equality legislation were rejected by legislators and many commentators.
The Church of England’s legal office has confirmed that the exemption was sufficient as the institutions of marriage and civil partnerships were distinct, so it was “clearly” not discriminatory to offer one but not the other.
The Stonewall draft marriage bill does not make provision for straight civil partnerships, which have been advocated by some campaigners, but the charity said this is because it only represents the interests of gay and bisexual people. Stonewall says: “This is a matter for heterosexual people and Stonewall would recommend consulting with them and stakeholder organisations representing them.”