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Equal rights

November 11, 2010

In Britain, eight couples – gay and straight – are campaigning to have both civil partnerships and marriage open for both straight and same-sex couples. They say they’re willing to go to the highest European court.

Gay couple
Gay couples can enter civil partnerships, but not marriageImage: www.relivision.com

Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle are a heterosexual couple applying for a civil partnership – a form of legal union available only to same-sex couples. They are one of four heterosexual couples and four same-sex couples trying to challenge the current UK legislation on marriage and civil partnerships.

"Initially our aim was equality but increasingly as we look critically at marriage, we feel it is not relevant to us," Katherine Doyle told Deutsche Welle. "We really do want a civil partnership. In our day-to-day lives we are more like partners."

"The important question for us is: why shouldn't we have a civil partnership," her partner Tom added. "The institution is being provided for by law so why shouldn't I have one?"

Gay couples in Britain have been allowed to enter into civil partnerships since 2004, which gives them all the same legal rights and responsibilities as a civil marriage. However they are denied a civil marriage certificate. On the other hand heterosexual couples do not qualify to enter a civil partnership. They can either get married or not.

A violation of human rights?

Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle
Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle are prepared to fight for yearsImage: Catherine Drew

Working alongside the gay rights group Outrage, the eight couples argue that denying each group the legal rights of the other is discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, something which is contrary to Britain's human rights act.

Yet Tom and Katherine's application has been refused so far. All they got was a short statement from the town hall, saying that "a civil partnership is a relationship between two people of the same sex."

The eight couples are one by one each week applying to their local town halls for either a marriage certificate, or a civil partnership certificate, whichever is denied them by law. At the end of two months, if all applications are turned down, as they are expected to be, the couples will begin a high court challenge.

It is the first time that heterosexual couples have taken such an active role in a campaign which at first glance might appear to benefit gay couples wanting equality and a full marriage.

All the way to the European Court of Human Rights

The civil partnerships act of 2004 was introduced by the then Labour government with wide support in parliament. It gives same-sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as civil marriage. There also is a formal process for dissolving partnerships which is akin to divorce, but gay rights activists still criticize that it doesn't grant full marriage status to gay couples.

Gay couple
Civil partnerships exist in most EU member statesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"When all eight couples - gay and straight - have filed their applications and have been refused we'll then consult with our legal advisers with a view to bringing the case to the courts," Peter Tatchell of the group Outrage, which is leading the Equal Love campaign, told Deutsche Welle.

"There’s a very strong argument that the twin bans on gay marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships are illegal under the human rights act," he added.

Tatchell says the group is prepared to take the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Public opinion backs gay marriage

In response to the campaign, the government has issued a statement saying that it is currently considering the next steps for civil partnerships. It said that earlier this year ministers met with people and organizations holding a range of views and that they are looking at the best way to take those views forward.

The Equal Love campaign argues that public attitudes have shifted strongly in favor of allowing gay couples to marry, citing an opinion poll carried out by the group Populus in June 2009, which found that 61 percent of the public believe gay couples should be allowed to marry, while 33 percent disagreed.

However, if there is a change in the law, it is not likely to come soon.

"It could take five to ten years to go through the courts," said Katherine Doyle. "But we really feel that we can't commit to marriage when it's exclusive."

Author: Catherine Drew in London (ai)
Editor: Rob Turner