Many of you will remember Section 28, the controversial amendment that banned local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality. Scotland repealed the amendment in 2000, three years before the rest of the UK.
In 2006, the Church of Scotland became the first major denomination in the UK to ‘bless’ gay unions, voting that this was a matter of conscience for individual ministers. This is in stark contrast to the Church of England, which has consistently reaffirmed that clergymen are banned from blessing same-sex unions, although individual cases have taken place unofficially.
Now that gay rights have hit the headlines again, Scotland is continuing to lead the way. The issue of equal marriage has been prolific over the last few weeks. On 18 January, Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy were awarded £1,800 each in damages after being turned away from a Cornish hotel. The Christian owners would only allow married couples to share a double room and the men’s civil partnership was not considered sufficient. In a separate case, four British same-sex couples have taken their fight for civil marriage to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) this week.
Legally, civil partnership and civil marriage are almost identical. The only difference is that a marriage is both a spoken and a written contract, while a partnership doesn’t require any exchange of words. As a result, these couples claim that the main difference is one of status. There can be little doubt that the main motivation for introducing the term ‘partnership’ to denote same-sex unions back in 2005 was to reduce the controversial impact of the new legislation. It has been seen by many campaigners as a political compromise ever since. Considering this, it is interesting that four heterosexual couples have also gone to the ECHR, demanding their right to a civil partnership. Either way, the important thing is equality and this currently isn’t available to either group in England.
Marriage law in Scotland is devolved, however, and gay marriage could be available here by May this year. Pressure has been mounting on the Scottish government since as early as 2009. A survey conducted that year showed that more people supported equal marriage in Scotland than in any other part of the UK, at 46 percent. By 2010, this figure had risen to 58 percent, following several high profile campaigns. A petition submitted to the Scottish Parliament by the LGBT Network in March 2009 attracted just over 1000 signatures, including several MEPs and Church of Scotland leaders. Later that year, the National Union of Students in Scotland launched the Equal Marriage Pledge, which anticipated the current court case at the ECHR by calling for both same-sex marriage and mixed-sex civil partnership. The petition collected 1,317 signatures and was signed by MSPs from several political parties.
Now, this long awaited piece of legislation seems close to becoming a reality. Following a symposium on equal marriage hosted in Edinburgh last week by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Green Party committed itself to backing equal marriage legislation at the next parliamentary session, which takes place in May. Party co-convener Patrick Harvie has said he is confident that the proposal will attract enough cross-party support to take it onto the statute book. He is right to be confident. The Liberal Democrats have already expressed their commitment to the equal marriage campaign. The Scottish Labour Party has also indicated that it may be disposed to vote in favour of such legislation, and many individual SNP politicians have signed up to support it.
Holland was the first European country to make marriage available to same-sex couples in 2001. Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Spain and Portugal have all followed suit, while Luxembourg is currently considering the proposal. In the not-too-distant future, same-sex marriage in the legal systems of the EU states may become the norm and not the exception.
By Jessica Abrahams