The Civil Partnership Act 2004 (hereafter the “CPA”) received Royal Assent on 18 November 2004 and entered into force on 5 December 2005. The CPA establishes an entirely new legal relationship in the United Kingdom, namely the civil partnership, which two people of the same-sex are entitled to form on the signing of a registration document. Intending civil partners must also be aged over sixteen, they must not already in an existing civil partnership or lawfully married; and they must not be within the prohibited degrees of relationship.
A civil partnership is not a marriage. It is however a parallel relationship to that traditional institution which entails an equivalent degree of commitment and seriousness. The civil partnership has been created in order to provide same-sex couples with the means to have their relationship legally recognised if they so desire.
The CPA confers on the couple the status of being each other's civil partner. A civil partnership is constituted by a registration procedure which is similar to that of civil marriage. Furthermore, the CPA also makes provision for certain registered legal relationships in foreign jurisdictions (including same-sex marriage in countries where such are recognised) to be recognised and accepted in the United Kingdom as equivalent to the new civil partnership
The CPA provides for a parity of treatment between same-sex couples who form a civil partnership and opposite-sex couples who enter into a civil marriage in a broad spectrum of legal situations. It is submitted that this will enable same-sex couples to organise their lives together with greater ease and more efficiency
Important rights and responsibilities will flow from the formation of a civil partnership, . Provisions in the Act include: employment and pension benefits; a duty to provide reasonable maintenance for the other party to the civil partnership and any children of the family; the assessment of civil partners in the same way as traditional spouses for the purposes of child support; equitable treatment for the purposes of life assurance; formal recognition under intestacy rules; legal recognition for the purposes of immigration and nationality; access to compensation for fatal accidents; and protection from the threat of domestic violence.
As stated above, the civil partnership is a new legal relationship, intended exclusively for same-sex couples, and distinct from marriage. While civil partners will enjoy general parity of treatment with spouses in the responsibilities and rights that are generated in the formation of a civil partnership, it should be noted that there are a small number of differences between marriage and civil partnership, for example, a civil partnership is formed when the second civil partner signs the relevant document, a civil marriage is formed when the couple exchange spoken words. Opposite-sex couples can opt for a religious or civil marriage ceremony as they choose, whereas formation of a civil partnership will be an exclusively civil procedure.
Various influential bodies are opposed to the very notion of the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships. The Roman Catholic Church has reserved strong language of condemnation for the idea. Homosexual civil partnership were denounced by the previous Pope as the legitimisation of “evil”. It is submitted that the new Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, shares the same conservative views on this point as his predecessor.
The Catholic Church argues that steps to grant legal rights to homosexual couples will inevitably undermine marriage and that such must be opposed with vigor by Roman Catholic commentators and politicians around the world. The Vatican added that permitting cohabiting homosexuals to adopt was “harmful to the common good” and “gravely immoral” and even tantamount to “doing violence” to children by putting them in a grossly unnatural environment.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, justified this stance as no more than a restatement of traditional teaching that homosexual practices are “sins gravely contrary to chastity”.
Although the English Bishops, generally speaking, have taken a significantly less confrontational approach to the issue the Vatican persists in declaring that homosexual acts breach the moral law and that any move to equate gay relationships with marriage is immoral. The position of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is that recognition of civil partnerships will undermine society itself.
The Vatican stated:
“Those who would move away from tolerance to the legitimisation of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalisation of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil,”
In 2002 Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith argued against extending new legal rights to homosexuals in the field of child adoption. This stance triggered a damaging revolt within his party, which was keen to be seen to be modernising and liberalising after election defeat.
By 2003 the new Tory leader Michael Howard allowed free votes on the civil partnership bill, treating the matter as a conscience issue and eager to demonstrate a more inclusive attitude. However, while the media often sought to blur the line, both the Conservatives and the Labour Party proved keen to draw a clear distinction between the concept of civil partnership and that of marriage, which is still believed to be an exclusively religious term.
The Church of England adopted a similar stance in its contribution to the political debate. Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury stated:
“There could be a case for civil partnerships as long as we don't call it marriage, because marriage for me and for many people is a relationship between a man and a woman for life. It is not to do with same-sex relationships. But there may well be a case for looking sympathetically at civil partnerships.”
That said, Michael Judge, speaking for the Christian Institute, argued that the new civil partnerships amounted to marriage in all but name. He commented:
“We are opposed to the Bill in principle because it devalues marriage by giving all the legal privileges of married couples to same sex couples…
If the government was being consistent it would extend rights to anybody living together in a loving relationship - two sisters, for example, who still faced inheritance hurdles.”
There is a fine line to tread between striving to achieve equal rights and offending religious sensitivities and cherished articles of faith. However, it is an emblem of the maturity of any advanced society that equality is guaranteed for all. In granting legal status to lesbian and gay couples the Civil Partnership Act 2004 represents an important step towards such a goal and can be justified on that ground alone, whatever one’s feelings about the lifestyle choice in question. It is telling that the 2004 Act steers well clear of any religious perspective and this is probably sufficient to satisfy the silent majority that the institution of marriage remains unchallenged by the new form of relationship.
There are, undeniably vociferous critics of the very concept of the civil partnership, and many of those that support this point of view are - revolted is not too strong a term - by the prospect of equating the new legal relationship with marriage. However, in light of the fact that the CPA merely transcribes the key features of the marriage relationship rather than adding any new innovation or bestowing some new or additional rights it is submitted that the civil partnership serves to reinforce not weaken the concept of marriage as the societal norm. If anything, it could be argued that the CPA underpins rather than undermines the institution of marriage, given, after all, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
From one perspective it could be said that a heterosexual civil partnership dilutes the concept of marriage because it embraces most of the rights and obligations of the latter. However if one looks at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, it could be argued that in adopting the marriage framework in extenso, a heterosexual civil partnership could only expand the ethos of the more traditional form of relationship, giving it application in a new and additional context.
Moreover it is hard to argue that a heterosexual civil partnership would prove any more attractive than a traditional marriage. The new form of relationship imposes the much the same rights and obligations on parties and so it cannot be said that a civil partnership would be an easier ride or easier and more flexible option than marriage itself. If anything a heterosexual civil partnership might been seen to be a commitment that was something less than a marriage, given the fact that is not grounded on religious faith.
It is submitted that the civil partnership lacks the religious dimension that is still fundamental to the commitment entered into by many couples in the United Kingdom in 2005. The majority of heterosexual (and possible also homosexual) couples still aspire to a church wedding. Without the crucial religious facet it is unlikely that the civil partnership in its current form will render marriage obsolete, because it offers a different form of commitment. It does not adequately replace marriage or offer any particular innovation or improvement to the status quo in that specific regard.
The nucleus of marriage is religion, whether those that get married pursue their religion actively or not. A heterosexual civil partnership will attract those couples that are not interested in embracing that aspect of life in their relationship, and perhaps rightly so, but it will have nothing to offer that that wish to incorporate a religious grounding and perspective in their association, so it is hard to imagine how marriage could be rendered obsolete.
Perhaps if there is a weakness in the question under discussion it lies in the choice of words used. The word obsolete is a strong one and, it is submitted, out of place in this context. If the question posed asked in the alternative whether marriage would become less popular on the future implementation of the option of a heterosexual civil partnership the debate would probably be more finely balanced.
To address the text of the question directly however, this commentators answer is that marriage would almost certainly not become obsolete if the provisions of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 were to be extended to heterosexual cohabiting couples. The principal reason for this conclusion is that the two forms of relationship, while offering similar rights and duties, see their origins in different authorities, which will always appeal to different groups of people.
In closing, it is argued that marriage will not be rendered obsolete until God is. This may seem to be a trite assertion but religious faith will both buttress and differentiate marriage from other forms of association, until faith itself falls out of favour. Until the practice of religion is itself in sharp retreat the institution of marriage will remain intact, even in the face of the option of a heterosexual civil partnership.
Marriage has, over the centuries, proved to be a most durable and useful institution. This commentator takes the controversial view that draconian divorce laws are more likely to undermine the attractiveness of marriage than the introduction of other kinds of heterosexual association that are subject to the same or similar costly dissolution process. If marriage eventually becomes the exception rather than the norm due to the availability of other legally recognised forms of heterosexual relationship it will be because of fundamental shifts in attitudes and belief across society, not because of the mere existence of other forms of association.
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