2012 was a pretty great year for marriage equality. In the United States, we saw the first states to legalize marriage equality by popular referendum, with Maine, Maryland and Washington voters choosing to let same-sex couples tie the knot. The country of Denmark also legalized marriage equality last year, and in Brazil, several states have attempted – with varying levels of success – to require marriage licenses for same-sex couples who want them. A bill before New Zealand’s parliament to legalize same-sex marriage also passed its first reading last year in August, and a bill in Uruguay to allow it passed its lower house. While plenty of countries around the world still make it difficult to be gay, it’s clear that equality is on the march.
In other words, 2013 has big shoes to fill. But we’re less than a month into it, and it’s already looking like some major strides are being made. Including one that a lot of queers have been waiting quite some time for: marriage equality in the United Kingdom (or, at least, part of it).
It’s been a long time coming, but it may finally be here: as of Friday, the British government has published a bill to legalize same-sex marriages in England and Wales. It had its first reading today in the House of Commons, and MPs will get their first chances to vote on it next month. With even many in the Conservative Party, including Prime Minister David Cameron, supporting it, the chances look good for the bill’s passage.
Of course, there are still some, as the CTV News article linked above put it, “traditionalist Conservative lawmakers” who are planning to oppose the bill. But it does attempt to side-step religious objections –and the ferocious debate over homosexuality in the Anglican Church – by exempting Church of England from the requirement to marry same-sex couples. This does put same-sex couples in Britain in an interesting place, though; since they are a state-run church, they have a legal duty to marry any parishioners, which “does not apply to other religions.” Yet this “legal duty” will not be extended to same-sex couples, making them unequal in a particular way. (The Church in Wales – which, while not a state church, has the same legal duty to marry as the Church of England – has the same caveat applied to it with this bill.)
The bill is choosing to treat the Church of England the way that they treat other religious groups in the UK, with regard to same-sex marriage: they will be able to conduct the marriages, should their governing body approve. Currently, however, the Church of England defines marriage as between one man and one woman, so even pro-gay Anglican clergy would not be able to conduct same-sex marriages. Of course, couples will still be able to get secular marriages.
In a country with a state church, how to deal with religious opposition is a lot less obvious than it is somewhere like the United States, where the separation of church and state ostensibly addresses the issue. Yet the UK’s Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government seems committed to trying to respect both LGBT equality and religious freedom. As Culture Minister and Minister for Women and Equalities Maria Miller, who introduced the bill, puts it:
Marriage is a hugely important institution in this country – one which has changed throughout our history, and continues to change.. The values of marriage bind families and communities together and bring stability. I believe that couples should not be excluded from marriage just because they love someone of the same sex. In opening up marriage to same-sex couples, we will further strengthen the importance of marriage in our society. Our proposals recognise, respect and value the very important role that faith plays in our lives. I have always been crystal clear that I would not put forward any legislation that did not provide protection for religious organisations. This Bill protects and promotes religious freedom, so that all religious organisations can act according to their doctrines and beliefs.
Polls also show that the bill enjoys majority support from British citizens. The UK has had civil unions since 2005, and hopefully this bill will result in more equitable unions for English and Welsh queers. Elsewhere in the UK, marriage equality has also made progress in Scotland’s parliament in the past year.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, marriage equality continues its state-by-state trek in the United States, and the only question is who is next. It could be Illinois… or it could be Rhode Island. Thanks to Maine’s re-legalization of same-sex marriage, Rhode Island is now the only state in New England without marriage equality. Some Ocean State lawmakers don’t like that designation, and want to change it. As of today, the Rhode Island House of Representatives – whose speaker, Gordon Fox, is openly gay – passed the measure. To get what a big deal this is, legislation has been considered regularly by the RI General Assembly since 1997, and hasn’t even advanced to a vote until now.
Things look a little bit less certain the Senate, whose President, Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport), is against marriage equality. She was a strong supporter of the civil unions law that passed last year and called it “historic,” yet seems to be bothered by the even-more-historic notion of Rhode Island – and by extension, all of New England – going for full marriage equality. RI is one of the U.S.’s most Catholic states, and Catholic bishops in the state have spoken out against even allowing civil unions for same-sex couples. Teresa Paiva Weed is a Catholic who enjoys strong support from that constituency.
However, Paiva Weed says she will allow a vote on the measure, and if it can get past the Senate, Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, plans to sign it. His support of marriage equality is such that he, along with Speaker Fox, has blocked previous attempts to make marriage equality a ballot question, taking the stance that a minority’s civil rights should never be put up to a majority vote.
The state’s chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, of course, has insisted on that “majority” point, with director Chris Plante insisting that Rhode Islanders “don’t want to see [marriage] re-defined.” The actual statistics don’t reflect that statement, though; according to a poll last September by Providence-based cable station WPRI, 56% of Rhode Island voters support marriage equality. The only group with majority opposition to same-sex marriage are registered Republicans.
Rhode Island’s delay on the issue, compared to the rest of New England, may be due to its unique political geography: according to FiveThirtyEight’s state-by-state analysis during the election, it is the most elastic state. That means that a significant swath of its electorate are people not aligned with any political party, which is why they could elect an independent governor. (Maine and New Hampshire also have strong levels of elasticity.) Yet, like most of New England, Rhode Islanders vote reliably Democratic in presidential elections because they’re turned off by the social conservatism of the national GOP; the local Republicans they elect tend to be more moderate. As the national Democratic Party increasingly makes marriage equality a part of its core platform, and opposition is seen as increasingly outmoded and confined to conservative Republicans, it may become more difficult for socially-conservative Democrats like Paiva Weed to continue with their opposition, even in elastic Rhode Island. Along with making appeals to the state’s history of religious tolerance – it was founded by Roger Williams as a haven for those escaping Puritan Massachusetts – Gov. Chafee has also encouraged passage of the bill by appealing to the state’s economic prospects, stating, “We are at an economic disadvantage with our neighboring states when we do not have the welcome mat out for all those who want to work here and contribute to our economy.”
The idea that it’s becoming more and more unavoidable for governments who want to appear modern and tolerant to support marriage equality is clear in both the UK and the US’s debates over the issue. Hopefully this theme will promote the idea that equality needs to be a reality not only in those countries, but around the world.