“There is a pragmatic view; Jersey society will only take so much of this reform”
Deputy Roy Le Herissier, Chair of the Education and Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel
There are parallels to be made between the passage of Civil Partnerships legislation and the campaign in the early 90’s to legalise abortion and over the age of consent. This time round there is less resistance by the forces of conservatism, yet their intolerance remains evident. That intolerance comes from the political right and in particular from the religious right.
I was a member of the Pro-Choice group, of women and men, campaigning to support the Public Health Committee bring the abortion legislation through the States in the early 90’s. It was a hard fought battle. Jersey society was supportive as was indicated by a petition, then the largest ever for the time. As ever, it was convincing the political elites and overcoming the conservatism of the right to block progressive social legislation. The UK had made abortion legal in 1967 and still thirty years later steps has not been taken to modernize the law in Jersey to reflect the reality of medical practice and changed perceptions of women’s rights.
The Civil Partnerships legislation is currently undergoing Scrutiny by the Education and Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel and this week saw a number of important witnesses appear before the panel to give their opinion.
The Civil Partnerships legislation confers to gay and lesbian couples the same rights as marriage does to heterosexual couples, without calling it marriage and excluding religious involvement. Indeed the legislation is designed with religious sentiment in mind. It achieves the same end without calling it marriage. For political purposes it is a devise to turn resistance from the right and religious groups that are intolerant and homophobic.
From a purely legislative perspective is would be so much more simple to allow couples of the same sex to get married and all the rights and obligations associated with that institution as conferred by the state would follow. Instead we have a stand alone piece of legislation that involves considerable consequential amendments to other legislation, particularly in regards to inheritance and taxation. One Advocate appeared to remind the panel that the Housing Law would also have to be amended, just in case the point had been overlooked.
Senator Ozouf appeared to give evidence in his capacity as deputy Chief Minister, the Chief Minister’s Office having responsibility for the legislation. He probably wished he did not have to be there; the Chief Minister being absent in China. As an openly gay man he was sympathetic personally to the legislation and it is undoubtedly his presence in the Council of Ministers that has eased its passage, especially as there are a number of Ministers with strong homophobic opinions. Senator Ozouf’s discomfort was evident as he struggle with the conflicting tensions of principle and pragmatism. His language was measured and at times strained as he sought, under aggressive questioning by Deputy Montfort Tadier, to avoid admitting that religious sentiment was being pragmatically appeased.
Next on was the Dean and he just waffled. He did however make it clear that most religious groups in the island, but with one important exception, would not wish to hold Civil Partnerships on church premises nor offer blessings subsequent to a civil ceremony.
Representatives of the Quakers indicated that the Society of Friends held what they called a meeting for commitment as a kind of blessing at which a gay or lesbian couple would stand up and make clear their commitment. This had been happening in the UK since the 2005 Act. Ironically under the Jersey legislation Civil Partnership ceremonies cannot be held in religious premises, which would include the Friends Meeting House.
The JEP had sent a reporter to the scrutiny meeting to catch the words of wisdom as they fell from the lips of those with status in society like the Dean and Senator Ozouf. However the reporter did not stick around to hear the two women representing the Quakers and nor did the newspaper report their significantly more tolerant attitude towards gay and lesbian civil union.
In general, what one sees is that progressive opinion is simply ignored in any debate and the views of the elite take precedence, however backward and intolerant they may be. This observation holds true for other institutions that desperately need reform, be it Honorary Police, the role of the Bailiff and Crown Officers or the composition of the States.
As a final thought, it is a shame that Christopher Lakeman, Advocate and openly gay man, is not alive to see the passage of the Civil Partneships legislation. I recall that he had been officially authorised to officiate at such ceremonies.