Saturday, 18 June 2011

Civil Partnerships and the campaign for equality


“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.


  1. Who was representing the Quakers? I'm glad the local Quakers followed their UK counterparts.

  2. Nick,

    The issue under discussion is whether the actual act of partnership is conducted on civil premises only or on religious premises. UK law is clear that as a civil partnership, the act of partnership must take place on non-religious premises. That the Quakers then make an open offer for anyone to have the partnership blessed is an entirely separate act.

    There is no issue with this, because exactly the same is true of a 'civil' marriage - that is, one carried out by a civil registrar. There is a flat prohibition on any religious music or language within that event. What the participants do after that is their business, and many people go on to have the wedding blessed at a church (historically, because up until decisions by the General Synod in the last decade, many clergy exercised a right to refuse remarriage to divorcees - something I know all about).

    In fact the Quakers are not the only religious group to contemplate the blessing of same-sex partnerships. The Metropolitan Community Church has always done this since its foundation nearly 40 years ago. (Significantly, 2 of its 12 UK congregations are within 10 miles of a Condor Ferries terminal. All we need is someone to get on the boat over and set one going). More significantly, the governing conference of the Methodist church permits it. Quite what would happen if the local churches said no and a couple appealed to Conference is anyone's guess.

    I digress. There are churches that will run separate blessings of partnerships. But what Dep Tadier has proposed - allowing religious celebrations of same-sex unions - is a step beyond what UK law has provided.

    I support the right of same-sex couples to have the same status under law as those who are members of a "different-sex civil partnership" - what you would call a civil marriage. But I am not ready for the rewriting of historic doctrine that the lazy (and inaccurate) term "gay marriage" implies. And I fear that in pushing this on, those who are (in some cases) considerably more bigoted that I will shout louder, and the necessary progress towards civil partnerships will be further delayed.

  3. James,

    Thank you for the elucidation.

    There is certainly plenty of intolerance out there and I agree that pragmatism may well be necessary to avoid the legislation being lost.

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  5. Tony,

    The Quakers were represented by Frances Ferrris, Clerk of the Jersey Meeting and Cathy Eglington.

    In due course a transcript of all the hearings will be available on the scrutiny website of Education and Home Affairs.

  6. Tom Gruchy says
    One of the unexpected issues raised was that people do not always want a "civil partnership" in order to have a sexual relationship. Some people want to regularise non-sexual arrangements which might be about inheritence of propoerty between sisters or other relatives.
    It is possible too that people with disabilities might want a partnership if they are unable to consumate a sexual relationship - yet some might also want a religious ceremony for reasons of faith There are just so many possible permutations of human need and it is just so silly to restrict this procedure by dogma.

    The fact that there is no need to force religious institutions to carry out same- gender "marriages" must also be stressed. An enlightened law would simply allow those organisations who want to offer the service, to do do. Permissive not prescriptive.
    Groups such as the Quakers only "marry" those who are already members of the group - so would not be throwing open their doors to all and sundry. The proposed Jersey rules will actually reduce the Quakers ability to offer an existing service. Hardly fair is it?

    Are christians so lacking in tolerance?

  7. Tom Gruchy says
    So New York has signed up to allow same gender marriages along with about half a dozen other USA States. Don't know about New Jersey's policy but other places such as Australia are also looking at it.
    This Island really should learn from the new world.

  8. Nick good luck in your election campaign in Number One. The district has been run by dead wood for far too long.