He is also making a pitch to uneasy religious conservatives, suggesting that the institution of marriage will reinforce traditional values of commitment and monogamy within the gay community. Married same-sex couples, for instance, could file for divorce on the grounds of adultery — a legal option not currently considered in civil partnership laws.
The terms of political debate here remain different than in the United States, where the Republican Party base contains a highly influential religious right whose views on social issues are considered extreme even among many British Conservatives. But even here, the notion of altering the definition of marriage — as opposed to granting civil partnership rights — is hardly a safe political bet, with the push generating far more discord than most had anticipated.
Although a new law would not compel churches to perform religious wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, called the proposal “grotesque,” throwing his weight behind a growing national campaign to defeat the measure. The Church of England has decried the idea as tantamount to legislating cultural change and has mounted a rigorous defense of marriage “between a man and a woman.”
The issue is also setting up the biggest internal party rebellion since the Conservatives returned to power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Strategists say that as many as a third of Conservative lawmakers may vote against the plan, which might nevertheless pass in Parliament with the backing of Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the opposition Labor Party.
Debate in gay community
By offering the proposal, Cameron has put his party out in front of even many gay advocates here who had seen other issues, such as stiffer penalties for hate crimes, as higher priorities. Although gay groups are vigorously campaigning in support of the measure, advocates initially debated whether they should even endorse a proposal seen by some as bringing a patriarchal and archaic institution to same-sex couples.
“This is more of David Cameron trying to drag the Conservatives kicking and screaming into the modern world,” said Ben Bradshaw, a ranking Labor lawmaker who in 1997 became one of Britain’s first openly gay members of Parliament. “Of course, we’ll support it, but this is pure politics on their part. This isn’t a priority for the gay community, which already won equal rights” with civil partnerships.
He added: “We’ve never needed the word ‘marriage,’ and all it’s done now is get a bunch of bishops hot under the collar. We’ve been pragmatic, not making the mistake they have in the U.S., where the gay lobby has banged on about marriage.”
But a growing chorus of voices in the gay community here is also livid that advocates have not pushed marriage to the top of the same-sex agenda sooner.
“Now that we’re having this debate, the gay community is failing to step up to the plate and defend our right to marriage as aggressively as they should in the face of this sudden religious opposition,” said Ewan Watson, 37, a London-based lawyer who is in a same-sex relationship. “For some of us, having marriage is huge. It’s a statement that we really are equal, and we won’t be as long as they segregate us from the word ‘marriage.’ ”