Many news reports have noted that the British government announced plans to seek an equal marriage law, but I have seen no press on the remainder of the statement: that the government intends to keep civil partnerships - available only to gay couples - off limits to different sex couples. This is a slap in the face to a coalition of organizations in the Equal Love Campaign, which has sought the same choices for male/male, female/female, and female/male couples.
Why not equalize eligibility? Because the conservative mindset understands that same-sex couples are harmed by de jure exclusion, but can't grasp that different-sex couples are not? Well yes, actually, given a certain logic. Liberal Party leaders such as David Cameron agree that denying gay couples equal access to the higher status of marriage is a form of discrimination. But they fail to see that denying straight couples the right to choose a non-marital relationship form also diminishes liberty.
The result of this policy, should it be adopted by Parliament, would be maximization of the incentives to marry while restricting the possibility of a non-marital form of commitment to a tiny minority. It mollifies the gays. And unless organizations representing different sex couples weigh in, it's likely to sail through. Perhaps what is needed is something that is more different from marriage that registered partnerships are - a status for adult relationships that is less constraining, with fewer obligations; or a status that attaches if and when children are born that brings automatic obligations to the child and the other parent.
Let's face it - society's normative generators - including law and religion - are much more concerned with channeling the great bulk of the population into marriage. Having gays included in marriage is much less upsetting of the status quo than ensuring that the overwhelming majority of different-sex couples adopt conventionally gendered relationships.
In any event, this is the time for the Equal Love Campaign to insist on its own foundational principles. That intervention has the potential to reshape the debate.
As for the official British government position, the report stated:
7.3 It is clear that many respondents felt that both civil partnerships and marriage should be available to all couples, in order to provide equality. Of those who responded to question 8, the majority disagreed with our proposals [to maintain civil partnership only for same-sex couples, after same-sex couples are allowed to marry] and felt that civil partnerships should be made available to opposite sex couples.
7.8 When civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, they were created to allow equivalent access to rights, responsibilities and protections for same-sex couples to those afforded by marriage. They were not intended or designed as an alternative to marriage. Therefore, we do not believe that they should now be seen as an alternative to marriage for opposite sex couples.
7.9 Opposite sex couples currently have access to marriage, either via a civil or religious ceremony, which is both legally and socially recognised. We understand that not all opposite sex couples wish to marry, but that decision is theirs to make and they have the option to do so if they wish. Through the responses received to this consultation, it has not been made clear what detriment opposite sex couples suffer by not having access to civil partnerships.
7.10 This consultation was not aimed at being a wider process of reform of marriage and civil partnership legislation and therefore we do not consider that it is necessary to open up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples in order to enable same-sex couples to get married.
What's going to come of this? Stay tuned.