The last few weeks have seen a series of decisions by lawmakers around the world to advance the rights of gay couples to legally marry. On Saturday, February 2nd, the French parliament approved a bill that advanced same-sex partnerships by redefining marriage as an agreement between two people and not specifically a man and a woman. The bill was passed with a 152 vote margin and was supported by President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party, despite widespread protests in recent weeks by a well-organized and vocal conservative campaign.
The British House of Commons also passed a bill this week, which represents the first step in the move towards the equalization of marriage for both heterosexual and homosexual couples. The reform has been championed by Prime Minister David Cameron since he took office in 2010 and received widespread support from the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Nevertheless, Cameron’s own Conservative Party failed to embrace the bill, with 136 Members of Parliament voting against the proposal, along with 40 others who did not register a vote.
While these bills represent significant advances for gay rights in their respective countries, both laws have faced intense opposition within their respective countries, even though majorities in both France and the United Kingdom now support marriage for same-sex couples. 65 percent of British adults now support gay marriage, up from 61 percent in 2009, according to a recent Populus poll. Even more encouraging for gay rights campaigners, 76 percent of those surveyed also agreed that gay and straight couples should enjoy exactly the same rights (up from 68 percent).
These leaps in support for same-sex partnerships, however, have not prevented the laws advancing gay marriage from facing harsh criticism and widespread opposition. France, in particular, has seen mass protests against the proposal. Around 340,000 people marched in a protest demonstration in Paris in January, while around 100,000 attended a similar march in November of last year. Marriage in France is an entirely secular institution; couples are required to have a civil marriage before any religious ceremony they may wish to undertake. This system helps to explain, to some extent, some of the more moderate opposition to gay marriage in France. In other European countries that have adopted same-sex partnerships, such as Spain, Portugal and currently the U.K., people who oppose gay marriage can get married in a religious ceremony that is completely divorced from the civil services organized for gay couples by the state. This separation is impossible in France, where a change to the civil code affects all citizens. This system, however, would represent one of the most egalitarian in the world.
In Britain, on the other hand, the opposition to gay marriage has come mostly from religious groups, and particularly the Church of England. The U.K. already permits civil partnerships for gay couples, performed in registry offices or other secular locations, but does not permit gay couples the title of “marriage.” It is this inequality that the new law seeks to rectify, rather than the gap in religious ceremonies. As a result, religious groups who are willing to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples would be allowed to, although the Church of England – the state religion – would not, even for those officials who would be happy to preside. This has helped to quell some of the most vocal opposition to the law – no religious groups would be forced to perform a ceremony – although it could be said to perpetuate a two-tier system for straight and gay British couples.
Nevertheless, the passage of these laws represents momentum for the continuing advance of greater rights for gay people in Europe, momentum that seems to be reflected across the Atlantic. President Obama’s second inaugural speech made reference to the gay rights struggle initiated by the Stonewall riot, while the states of Maine, Maryland, and Washington all voted in favor of gay marriage in November’s election. With the Supreme Court set to settle disputes on California’s current ban on gay marriage as well as the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act, there is plenty of potential for greater advances in America in the near future.