A heterosexual couple in Britain has been refused the right to enter into a civil partnership after losing a legal battle at the Court of Appeal. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan had argued that the first ruling against them had been discriminatory because they were prohibited from this legal status because of their sexual orientation. The pair have said that they intend to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. The court case is important because it addresses the issue of inequality in our society but from a perspective that is often ignored, and the questions raised by refusing civil partnerships to heterosexual couples are interesting.
The question of heterosexual civil partnerships is an important one because it reveals a quirk of our legal system. When civil partnerships were introduced in 2004, the government argued that they were in no way inferior to marriages and as such granted people in civil partnerships almost all the same legal rights as marriages. Following the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, marriage equality was legalised, but there was nothing in this bill that allowed for heterosexual couples to enter civil partnerships.
On the grounds of equality I contend that this is wrong. Indeed the judges at the Court of Appeals said that denying straight people access to civil partnerships may be a breach of their human rights. The reason I believe this is an important issue is that it is a matter of discrimination. If heterosexual couples don’t want to get married and instead want to get a civil partnership, what substantive reason is there against it?
Evidently I’m not alone in asking this question as Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, has argued that the government had “no excuse” for continuing the prohibition on heterosexual couples getting civil partnerships. The MP has introduced a Private Member’s Bill on the subject so that the issue can be debated in the House of Commons. The bill will be debated for the first time on 24th March. The Lib Dems have also come out in support of opening up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples.
Conservative opponents of this move may argue that such a policy change would reduce the luster of marriage in wider society and therefore should be opposed. To this opposition I have three responses. Firstly, I would argue it doesn’t because heterosexual couples choosing civil partnerships may agree with marriage being seen as a something to be revered and therefore believe their relationships shouldn’t be seen in this way.
Secondly, I would also argue that civil partnerships actually strengthen the institution of marriage as people who did decide to convert their partnerships into marriages would have had a kind of ‘trial run’ of commitment to one another, and therefore there would be fewer divorces. Surely it would be better, from a socially conservative perspective, to have slightly fewer strong marriages, than lots of people getting married and then divorcing a few months later? I’ve got no problem with no-fault divorce but if one did, I contend civil partnerships would be better for the institution of marriage.
The third point is that I do not believe the state should be involved in people’s personal lives in this way. If people want to get married that’s fantastic for them, but if they do not I don’t see why the state should prohibit people from acting in a way that they believe is more in-keeping with their relationship. We are only talking about civil marriage and as such any religious elements of services would be tacked on afterwards. Consequently, if people want to recognise their relationship in the eyes of the state, I don’t believe they should have to put a label on that status that they don’t actually agree with.
To conclude, I fully support the campaign to bring about legal equality for heterosexual couples in this area. Given the support I believe Mr Loughton’s bill will have in parliament, I don’t believe this injustice shall continue for much longer. Not only should civil partnerships be made available to heterosexual couples on the grounds of equality, but I believe marriage as an institution will be strengthened as a result. In this area people should have the freedom to act as they so please, and as such the government and Labour Party should support legalising heterosexual civil partnerships as soon as possible.