Civil partnership controversy: is the law discriminatory?

A heterosexual couple’s recent struggle to secure a civil partnership has forced the judiciary to reassess the appropriateness of marriage as a form of legal union in the 21st century.
On Tuesday, 21 February, the court of appeal ruled against Rebecca Steinfeld (35) and Charles Keidan (40), who launched the case in 2014. However, although the couple has lost the case, the judges’ unanimous agreement that such discrimination against heterosexual couples must change has left them with hope.

As the couple’s inability to obtain a civil partnership impacts their family life, the judges agreed that the ban constitutes a potential violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. They also considered the ban to be a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) as partnerships are available to same-sex couples but not heterosexual couples.

The couple plan to appeal to the Supreme Court if the law is not changed by the government or amended in Parliament, but have explained to The Guardian that doing so would be difficult given the high financial and emotional costs of further litigation.

Steinfeld and Keidan lost their case 2-1 as two of the judges decided to grant the government more time. Dan Squires, QC for the Secretary of State for Education, who takes responsibility for equalities within the government, has explained that the government is waiting to see how extending marriage to same-sex couples has impacted on civil partnerships before making the decision.

In spite of this, here has been much support for the couple’s challenge. A Change.org petition received over 76,000 signatures and MP Tim Loughton’s private members bill proposing to introduce these changes has gained cross-party support.

Andrea Williams, CEO of Christian Concern, believes that the court of appeal made the right decision, but for the wrong reasons. She has expressed her views that “marriage has already been diluted by the introduction of civil partnerships”, the “availability of divorce” and the extension of marriage to same-sex couples. Williams argues that the government ought to focus on protecting marriage between a man and a woman as the “proven ideal for a flourishing society”.

The couple are determined to lift the civil partnership ban due to their beliefs about family, equality and feminism. The couple believe that they do not have the same options as same-sex couples, who can choose between marriage and a civil partnership. As such, they feel that the ban goes against a core principle of democracy: that all people should be equal before the law.

They also believe that whilst marriage is right for many couples, it is not right for themselves due to the sexism associated with the institution. The couple have a young daughter and want their unity to show her that men and women are equal.

For them, a civil partnership is the best way to demonstrate this to her in that it is removed from the patriarchal connotations of marriage. They view marriage as sexist due to traditions such as the father giving the bride away to her husband, and that only the fathers’ names of the bride and groom appear on their certificate. Additionally, whilst a couple can opt for a civil ceremony including songs, readings or music, there must be no religious component.

Another key reason why the couple have sought a civil partnership is to secure legal protection for their family. There are around 2.9 million heterosexual couples cohabiting in Britain, with 39 per cent of those having dependent children.

As the number of unmarried couples living together has doubled in the last 15 years, perhaps the changing nature of relationships calls for an alternative form of legal union. A civil partnership arguably offers an equal unity free of religious and patriarchal implications, but some continue to reiterate that the proliferation of such bonds would ultimately contribute to a weaker society.

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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