A historic, landmark legal challenge against the UK government has begun in the High Court in London. Launched by Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, a heterosexual couple, it seeks to overturn the legislative ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships.
For this judicial review, the couple argue that the government's refusal to allow them a civil partnership because of their heterosexuality is incompatible with equality law. Civil partnerships are currently only open to same-sex couples.
The battle for equal civil partnerships began in 2003, when the Labour government proposed civil partnerships as a way of defusing the pressure on allowing same-sex marriage. Together with the LGBT human rights group OutRage!, I pushed for civil partnerships to be open to everyone, regardless of sex or sexuality. Labour leader and prime minister Tony Blair said no.
The battle continued with the Equal Love campaign, which was launched in 2010 with the aim of securing an end to what was, at the time, a twin ban on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. Although its lobbying helped secure 61% support for equal civil partnerships in the government's 2012 public consultation (only 24% opposed), Conservative PM David Cameron said no.
Charles and Rebecca's High Court case is a continuation of this long campaign.
They contend that Section 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which restricts civil partnerships to same-sex couples, is incompatible with Article 14, read in conjunction with Article 8, of the European Convention on Human Rights. These articles respectively require that everyone should be treated equally by the law and that everyone has a right to privacy and family life.
The current ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships is without merit or justification. The government has failed to show why it is necessary. It has provided no evidence to support its exclusionary stance.
Indeed, it is outrageous that successive Labour and Tory-Liberal Democratic governments have been so resistant to legislate equality and that this couple are being forced to go to court to get a basic human right – the right to be treated equally in law.
Civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples is a simple matter of ending discrimination and ensuring equality for all. In a democratic society, we are all supposed to be equal before the law.
Regardless of whether or not you support civil partnerships, since they exist, they should be open to all.
Moreover, it cannot be right that same-sex couples now have two options – civil partnership and civil marriage –whereas opposite-sex couples have only the option of marriage. This legal disadvantaging of heterosexual couples, and legal privileging of gay couples, is unprecedented in UK law – and very wrong.
Many MPs from across the political spectrum agree with the case for equal civil partnerships, including Caroline Lucas, Andy Slaughter and Stephen Twigg. Former children's minister Tim Loughton MP has a Ten Minute Rule Bill, which is receiving its second reading on 29 January.
And there is public support, too. The bid to overturn the ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships has already attracted significant support, with more than 34,000 supporters signing a petition on change.org.
Ava Lee, manager of the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign, noted:
"We have received thousands of messages from couples around the country who, for a huge variety of reasons, do not want to get married, but want to celebrate and cement their relationships, and want the same legal protections afforded to married couples. Civil partnerships are an institution that already exists, and that would offer exactly that to the ever-increasing number of cohabiting couples in the UK."
Explaining the rationale for their legal case, co-plaintiff Rebecca Steinfeld said:
"We are taking this case because the UK government is barring us, and many thousands of opposite-sex couples like us, from the choice of forming a civil partnership, and we want this to change.
"Personally, we wish to form a civil partnership because that captures the essence of our relationship and values. Civil partnerships are a symmetrical, modern social institution conferring almost identical legal rights and responsibilities as marriage, but without its historical baggage, gendered provisions and social expectations. We don't think there is any justification for stopping us or other opposite-sex couples from forming civil partnerships."
Even if you disagree with Rebecca's reasons for wanting a civil partnership, she's entitled to have one if she wishes, based on the principle that the law should not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.
For her partner and co-plaintiff, Charles Keidan, the core issue of their High Court case is equality:
"We believe that opening civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples would complete the circle of full relationship equality that began with the hard-won victory for same-sex marriage. We campaigned for equal marriage and believe that the significance and symbolism of opening marriage to same-sex couples cannot be overstated. Legalising same-sex marriage was the recognition that everyone is of equal worth and has the right to equal treatment under the law. It's now time for the government to demonstrate its commitment to equality by opening up civil partnerships to all couples."
This view is echoed by Louise Whitfield of Deighton Pierce Glynn, the solicitor representing Charles and Rebecca. She explained:
"This is a clear case of discrimination where the government has failed to justify its position on excluding opposite-sex couples from all the rights and legal protections that civil partnerships bring. This is so important for my clients that they are asking the court to declare that the current situation is incompatible with their human rights, to enable them and many others to access civil partnerships in the future, simply on the basis of equality."
The campaign for equal civil partnerships has won support from leading feminists who are critical of the patriarchal traditions of marriage and who are concerned that cohabiting women have negligible legal rights on the break up of a relationship. They see the legalisation of opposite-sex civil partnerships as a potential remedy to these two issues.
Sophie Walker, leader of the Women's Equality Party, commented:
"We believe all relationships have value, and should be afforded the same rights in law. We understand that many women are uncomfortable with the institution of marriage, and its old-fashioned connotations, but wish to have their relationships - and their rights - recognised in law. It's time that all couples are given the choice."
For more information about Peter Tatchell's human rights work, to receive his email bulletins or to make a donation, visit petertatchellfoundation.org