Friday, 8 February 2013

Same-Sex Marriage Bill isn't : it's 'Marriage Lite'

In presenting the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill to Parliament on Tuesday, Maria Miller (Minister for Women & Equalities) said "Parliament should value people equally in the law, and enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current differentiation and distinction". Which, in my opinion, would be great. Except it doesn't : the Bill embodies a very significant distinction, creating a new 'marriage-lite' within the Marriage Act.

Most people in this country would, I think, understand 'marriage' to mean a partnership in which each partner willingly agrees to henceforth 'forsake all others' when it comes to sexual relationships. Sexual partnership is generally understood to be at its centre, and same-sex partnerships are just as much sexual partnerships as any other. But not according to this Bill.

It's true that we Britons tend to go in for 'serial monogamy' these days, in which one exclusive sexual partnership is succeeded by another. It's true that young people explore (as young people always have) one-to-one erotic relationships without commitment before settling down with one partner. It's true that many people live in committed partnerships "forsaking all others" without ever going through the legal formalities of marriage or even declaring it publicly. And it's true that, through human weakness, many people fail to live up to the ideal of an exclusive sexual partnership "forsaking all others". But that 'marriage' is the ideal, the model, I have no doubt -- and that is why it is right that same-sex couples should have the right to cement such marriages legally. We don't generally go in for polygamy in this country, and even those few couples who choose to have 'open marriages' (i.e. they declare that they do not expect their partner to 'forsake all others' sexually) are conscious that they are bucking the trend.

But for some reason I can't fathom, this Bill exempts same-sex marriages from sexual exclusivity. Adultery will not be grounds for divorce. Challenged on this, Maria Miller said that 'unreasonable behaviour' remains as a ground for divorce, so adulterous behaviour is covered anyway -- as unreasonable behaviour. But exempting adultery clearly implies that, for same-sex partnerships at least, it is 'not unreasonable' - it's permitted, exempted! Same-sex marriages would be, by legal definition, 'open marriages' -- which, by most people's reckoning would mean 'not marriages at all'.

I'm sure most married same-sex couples would understand that they have committed themselves to a sexually exclusive partnership, but legally they won't have. They'll have been short-changed, and will be living 'marriage-lite' in the eyes of the law.

Eight MPs picked this up and challenged it in the debate, but the Minister for Culture, Media & Sport Hugh Robertson, in summing up the debate made no reference to it. (Had Maria Miller left the chamber? Had Hugh Robertson even been present for most of the debate?) I sincerely hope that the clause in question (Schedule 4 Part 3) gets struck out in the revising stages.

I've written about this -- and why it is important -- more fully on my other blog.