A crowdfunding campaign has been launched by a couple who are seeking to end the ban in England and Wales on opposite-sex couples being able to form civil partnerships. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan have been given permission from a High Court Judge to continue with their legal case against the Government and bring a judicial review against the decision not to allow opposite sex couples the right to have civil partnerships. The couple need £70,000 to protect them from legal costs if they lose, before they are able to move forward with the case. Last year saw the ground-breaking change to the law that allowed same-sex couples to marry. Is it now time to mirror that change and allow opposite-sex couples the chance to form a civil partnership?
The most obvious reason for allowing opposite sex couples to form civil partnerships is basic fairness. There is a blatant contradiction that a move to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation, ie by allowing same-sex couples to marry, results in the creation of a new form of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Whilst this form of inequality is unlikely to be as damaging given the general lack of oppression experienced because of heterosexuality, it is still one that should be remedied, not least to remove the erroneous claims made from some quarters that gay, lesbian and bisexual people have special privileges.
If anything, removing the ban on straight couples forming civil partnerships could help reduce the inequality that non-heterosexual people continue to experience. Some of those who responded to last year's Government Consultation in opposition to the idea of extending civil partnerships objected because they felt it was important to uphold the idea of marriage as a heterosexual institution, and civil partnerships as a homosexual institution. Whilst that idea is considerably weakened by the ability of same-sex couples to now marry, there is a risk that by banning straight couples from civil partnerships, it reinforces the idea that marriage remains first and foremost a heterosexual institution.
Allowing straight couples to form civil partnerships could also help remove the idea that civil partnerships are nothing more than the "compromise" institution available to gay couples until they could marry. Whilst many same-sex couples did only form civil partnerships because they could not marry, many others had no interest in marriage, yet value civil partnerships. Given that these will continue to be available for same-sex couples indefinitely, it is important that those relationships are not undermined by a general perception that these are second best.
One concern raised about removing any ban would be that it would undermine marriage. In one sense, one can see the logic in that argument, as it would provide a legal option to straight couples other than marriage. But the reality is that more and more are deciding not to marry in any event, instead choosing to live together with no legal commitment. As a manifesto launched this week by Resolution (the association of family lawyers) highlighted, whilst cohabitees are the fastest growing family type in the UK, there are fewer legal protections available for such couples than there are for couples who are married or in civil partnerships.
Many cohabitees do not marry because they don't want to make that legal commitment, and many others are unaware of their lack of rights if they do not marry. However, there are also a substantial number of couples who do not want to marry because they object to the history and the trappings of the institution, whether it's due to the religious connotations or not wanting to be associated with the sexist or more outdated aspects of it. Whatever one thinks of those objections, the Government Consultation found that 20% of straight, unmarried respondents would prefer the ability to form a civil partnership, rather than marry or live together. Not allowing them to do so won't push these couples into marriage, and so if we value and support the idea of making a formal legal commitment, then it makes sense to allow them to enter into civil partnerships.
A further reason for removing the ban is that it gives an opportunity to remedy another glaring inequality in our marriage laws, which is that of the "spousal veto". This legal provision means any trans person who is married and wants to gain gender recognition either needs the consent of their spouse or will have to divorce, which can considerably delay their ability to obtain gender recognition and cause real harm to them as a result. Whilst a removal of the spousal veto won't be an automatic effect of lifting the ban on straight couples from forming civil partnerships, it provides a further chance to highlight and rectify this issue.
The ability for same-sex couples to marry was a huge step forward in removing the legal inequalities experienced by gay, lesbian and bisexual people in relation to their relationships. Now is the time to address all the remaining inequalities of marriage and civil partnerships.