After months of speculation and, at times, fairly heated debate, the detailed proposals for same-sex marriage in England & Wales have now arrived. The "Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill" was published by the Government on 25 January 2013, in a document running to some 50 pages. There has been a great amount of speculation and misinformation about the proposed laws, so what does it actually say?
1. It will make same sex marriage lawful
Currently, gay and lesbian couples are only able to enter into civil partnerships. While these give almost all of the same rights and responsibilities as marriage, there remains a legal distinction between the two relationship statuses. This proposal will mean that there will be no legal distinction between couples who are married, whatever their sexual orientation.
2. No religious organisation will be compelled to marry same-sex couples
One of the biggest points of contention has been the involvement of religious organisations in marrying same-sex couples, with concerns that there would be insufficient legal protection. The proposals state that no person may be compelled to conduct, be present at or participate in any such marriage in a religious venue. It also specifies that there will be no duty on any Church of England minister to solemnize same-sex marriages. This will not, however, apply to civil marriages in register offices.
3. Religious organisations will have to "opt-in" to same-sex marriage
The proposals provide for a default position that religious organisations will not conduct same-sex marriages in places of worship unless they specifically "opt-in" to the scheme to do so. Individual premises would have to obtain the permission of their relevant governing authority, so it is likely that there will be uniformity across individual religious branches. The exception to this is the Church of England, which in one of the more controversial proposals is specifically excluded from being able to opt-in.
4. The Church of Wales will be allowed to conduct same-sex marriages
Initially, the Government had indicated that the legislation would prevent both the Church of England and the Church of Wales from being allowed to opt into the scheme, to alleviate the former's concerns that they may be required to do so unless specifically prevented. However, following stringent criticism from the Archbishop of Wales, who indicated that he supported the proposals to allow same-sex marriage, they will not be prohibited from doing so.
5. Existing civil partnerships can be "converted" into same-sex marriages
Any couple currently in a civil partnership will be able to convert it into a marriage. The exact details of this are yet to be published, so the procedure and cost of doing so will have to be established. However, for those who do wish to convert their relationship, the proposals provide that while the civil partnership will come to an end on the date of the conversion, the marriage will be treated as having existed from the day the couple entered into a civil partnership. Those who do not wish to convert their civil partnership will not be required to do so, and it will be interesting to see how many will be keen to take up this provision.
6. Civil partnerships will remain available, but only for same-sex couples
One issue raised by the proposals is that same-sex couples will be able to decide whether or not to enter into a civil partnership or get married. However, this choice will not be available to straight couples, who will only be able to get married. It is ironic that proposals introduced to make the law more fair and equal will still leave in place a situation in which there is still a two-tier system, and it is entirely likely that, if passed, this aspect is challenged in the courts.
7. No adultery and non-consummation for same-sex couples
One issue that has exercised some critics of the proposals has been what provision would be made for dissolution of the marriage due to adultery or non-consummation. The Government's answer has been to avoid the issue altogether.
8. If a married person changes their gender, they will no longer need to divorce
Previously, any married person who changed their gender was required to divorce their spouse, which has created a great deal of hardship and distress for those involved. Happily, the proposals provide that if their spouse consents, then they will no longer need to do so.
It is important to remember that these are only proposals, which will need to be voted through both Houses of Parliament, and so there could be further changes. The bill is due to be debated by the House of Commons on 5th February 2013, and no doubt the papers will continue to be filled with arguments between supporters and critics. Hopefully, for many gay and lesbian couples, same-sex marriage is one step closer.