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Thursday, March 23, 2017
Bishops' response to government proposals for civil partnerships
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 Following the civil partnerships proposals contained in The Queen's Speech, Bishop John Hine, of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales' Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship has issued the following statement: "It is regrettable the government is not producing any proposals to strengthen and support marriage. Either the government believes marriage, the exclusive union of a man and a woman for life, has a special role in our society or it believes it has not such a role. On behalf of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, my response to the consultation on proposed legislation concerning the civil registration of same sex partnerships argues such legislation is not necessary and will inevitably be another step in the direction of diluting the special status of marriage. We believe the Government should seek other ways to address any human rights issues in this area." The original submission document dated September 2003, is below. Government Consultation on 'Civil partnership ­ A framework for the legal recognition of same­sex couples'. Submission by Bishop John Hine, Bishop for Marriage and Family Life on behalf of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. Introduction The government's proposal to establish a civil registration scheme for same sex couples in England and Wales is a very significant development. Such a scheme would have serious long term consequences for our society and needs thorough and wide debate. This submission is a contribution to this important public debate. It comes from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales[1], but the case it puts forward consists of reasoned arguments founded on moral principles shared by many people of all faiths and none. The strength of this case lies in the merits of the arguments themselves. Two Principles: marriage and human rights There are two key moral requirements which are particularly relevant to assessing the extent to which the government's specific proposals serve to promote or undermine the common good of society: the need to uphold the institution of marriage and the family, and the need to defend the fundamental human rights of every person, irrespective of sexual orientation or behaviour. The first question to be addressed is what effect the scheme may have on the institution of marriage and the family. These are the foundation blocks of society and must not be in any way undermined. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. Across many cultures and through human history there has been a clear understanding, founded on the complementarity of male and female, of marriage as a lifelong covenant, recognising that it is from the personal union of man and woman that new life is born, and that it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can best be welcomed, nurtured and provided with a stable environment. For this reason, marriage is the cornerstone of the family and society. Supporting and upholding the institution of marriage, therefore, is an important goal of public policy. The question here, then, is whether there are grounds for judging that the government's specific proposals could or would undermine marriage and the family in England and Wales. The second relevant moral requirement is to uphold fundamental human rights. Everyone as a human being has a unique value and dignity, and no one should be defined or labelled simply in terms of their sexuality. The human person can hardly be described by a reductional reference to his or her sexual orientation. Indeed "the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as heterosexual or homosexual and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: a creature of God, and by grace his child and heir to eternal life". [2][2] The Catholic Church utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual. It is very much to be welcomed that in recent years, there have been many significant changes to the law to remove unjust discrimination against people on grounds of their sexuality. The relevant question here is whether what the government is proposing is necessary to defend the fundamental human rights of people who are homosexual. What the government is proposing and why The government's proposal is to create a civil partnership registration scheme for same-sex couples which is closely modelled on civil marriage. The formalities for registration are the same as for a civil wedding, with almost identical legal requirements. Equally the provisions for dissolution of the partnership are closely modelled on civil divorce, with one partner being required to petition the court for a decree of dissolution on grounds that the relationship had broken down irretrievably. Proposals relating to the distribution of property and for ensuring children are protected in the event of the relationship breaking down are also equivalent to the law relating to marriage and divorce. Inheritance rights where a partner dies intestate would treat registered partners the same way as spouses. There are a number of minor differences but the only significant rights which civilly married couples possess which are not conferred by these proposals on registered same sex couples is exemption from inheritance tax transfers between the couple. Of course also absent is a legal requirement for a civil ceremony of commitment, but this does not alter the fact that the legal consequences of registering such a civil partnership are virtually the same as registering a civil marriage. Although the consultation document states that "the government has no plans to introduce same sex marriage"[3][3] , what is proposed is tantamount to civil marriage in all but name. The reason given by the government for introducing the scheme are to "remedy an inequality that already exists between opposite-sex and same-sex couples".[4][4] The consultation document says: "It would provide for the legal recognition of same-sex partners and give legitimacy to those in, or wishing to enter into, interdependent, same ­sex couple relationships that are intended to be permanent. Registration would provide a framework whereby same sex couples could acknowledge their responsibilities, manage their financial arrangements and achieve recognition as each other's partnerthis in turn would encourage more stable family life"[5][5] Our arguments The key question is whether what the government proposes would actually result in undermining the institution of marriage and the family in England and Wales. To assess this it is essential to look ahead, and to appreciate the important distinction between private homosexual behaviour and, as the Vatican Congregation's recent note puts it, "the same behaviour as a relationship in society, foreseen and approved by the law, to the point where it becomes one of the institutions in the legal structure." [6][6]Changes in the law send signals to a society about its own values and what is most important. Laws must be developed not only according to their impact on individuals, but also according to their impact on the social fabric. As the Vatican Congregation's note goes on to point out: "Civil laws are structuring principles of life in society for good or for ill. They play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behaviour. Lifestyles and the underlying presuppositions they express not only externally shape the life of society but also tend to modify the younger generation's perception and evaluation of forms of behaviour. Legal recognition of homosexual unions would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage. "[7][7] Marriage would be undermined because it would no longer hold a privileged place. The signal the law would send to rising generations is that marriage as husband and wife, and a same sex relationship, are equally valid options, and an equally valid context for the upbringing of children. By publicly elevating same-sex relationships to a legal status virtually equivalent to civil marriage, the signal given to society would be that these two states of life are equally deserving of public protection and respect, when in fact they are not. Clearly a few same-sex couples do bring up children, though they cannot both be their biological parents. But same-sex parents remove from children's immediate family experience and context either the male or the female experience. Of course the wider family - grandparents, aunts and uncles will in any family situation often provide close and important relationships for children, but this is not the same as parenthood. The general psychological male/female complementarity in parenthood is not directly witnessed. Developments in medical technology using artificially assisted reproduction and surrogacy arrangements have already made it possible for same sex couples to have children biologically related to one of them. Technological advances may even in future create new possibilities for same sex couples. It is in this long term context that we have to consider the rights of children. It is wrong to embark on a policy whose probable long term outcome will be that more children are deliberately brought into this world only to be deprived of having both a father and a mother. This will be the most likely long term result of a public policy which promotes same sex couples as parents by giving them a public status equivalent to marriage. It must be acknowledged that not uncommonly today single parents, either a woman or a man, can and do successfully bring up children alone, and in particular circumstances this will be in the best interests of a particular child (such as when one parent dies). But in general terms, single parenthood would not be promoted as a goal of social policy. Nor, we argue, should same-sex parenthood. Part of the government's argument is that the proposals are necessary to redress an inequality in the treatment of heterosexual and same sex couples. The arguments above make clear the special role which marriage plays in fostering lifelong commitment and family stability, in providing the loving context in which a child can best be welcomed, nurtured and provided with a stable environment. This is the justification in the public interest for treating marriage differently from any other relationships. But we have now to consider whether there are other arguments for proposing some kind of civil partnerships, arguments which are not about some supposed equality with marriage, but rather founded on the need to respect fundamental rights. The first point to note here is just how far the law has already changed in recent years to remove discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and behaviour. Most of these changes serve clearly to root out injustice in individual cases and can be welcomed as they do this without of themselves creating any parallel legal institution to marriage. Thus changes to immigration rules and to tenancy rights, which grant same sex couples the right to succeed to a tenancy[8][8] . The Sexual Offences Bill 2003 removes discrimination by gender and orientation. Changes to employment law to tackle discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation should greatly help to remove lingering prejudice and discrimination against homosexual people in the workplace.[9][9] As noted above, the church welcomes and endorses the removal of unjust or discriminatory treatment against homosexual people, and a civilised society must recognise that everyone retains their human and civil rights simply in virtue of their inherent dignity as human beings. Another recent change to the law on adoption, however, making it possible for same-sex couples to adopt as a couple is much more problematic for the reasons noted in para.11 above. Given all these legal changes which have already taken place, the question arises whether the government's proposal to create same-sex civil partnerships is necessary to protect or defend human rights. When, alongside the changes already noted it is also borne in mind that two people can make private legal provision covering many aspects of their lives together (such as joint ownership of homes, living wills, powers of attorney, etc), the argument that this scheme is necessary loses much of its force. A specific point is often made about the role of 'next of kin.' This is indeed important but as the government consultation makes clear, there is no general legal definition of this role (other than in relation to intestacy). What is important is to recognise the great value of close friendship, which is not to be confined to marriage or family. Indeed whilst the Church's teaching is clear that sexual relationships belong exclusively within marriage, the Church does not thereby reject love or friendship between homosexual people. It may well be that the bond of friendship makes someone closer to us than we are to any family member. A deep friendship is something we all can rejoice in. A failure to acknowledge this can lead to the wrongful exclusion of someone who should be informed and involved in cases of medical emergency or, for instance, in funeral arrangements. There are other arguments made regarding tax and benefit arrangements, where the proposed civil partnership scheme would confer rights analogous to marriage. Attention has also focussed on the question of pension entitlements. Two points emerge quickly once these detailed aspects of property and financial arrangements are examined, and comparisons are made across the range of relationships which exist. One is that the creation of a registration scheme conferring certain rights on same sex couples alone would create new anomalies with regard to other long term same-sex arrangements where the relationship was not a sexual one ­ two sisters, for instance, who had shared assets and property over many years. Second, and more fundamental, if the aim is to combat injustice and uphold human rights in the context of human relationships in relation to property and financial assets, then the government is overlooking a much greater source of current injustice: the problem of long term heterosexual co-habitees and their children, many of whom persist in believing the myth that there is such a thing as "common law marriage" which confers rights on them. There are many vulnerable people in the circumstances of cohabitation. The comparison here is not simply between the far greater number of heterosexual cohabitees (11% of family households with children[10][10]) compared with the number of UK households consisting of same-sex couples (0.2% of UK households)[11][11] It is also that a very high proportion of heterosexual cohabitees wrongly believe that they have legal rights on the breakdown of their relationship. Fifty-six per cent of them believe they are protected by "Common Law Marriage". Most co-habiting men probably do not know that they do not legally have "parental responsibility" for their children unless they have taken legal steps to obtain it, such as by being granted a parental responsibility order. Such a position leaves many children vulnerable to the impact of parental separation. The government's consultation notes this problem but does not advocate extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples: "opposite sex couples already have the opportunity of obtaining legal (and socially recognised) status for their relationship by entering into a marriage, whether religious or civil.The government does not believe that the solution for those opposite sex couples who choose not to marry, is to offer them another way of entering into an equally formal kind of legal commitment to each other. ".[12][12] We agree that this is not the solution, and there is no reason to suppose that cohabiting heterosexual couples will be any more inclined to take up another form of legal commitment than the one already available, namely marriage. But there is nonetheless still a very serious problem for our society caused by the sadly high rates of relationship breakdown among heterosexual cohabiting couples with children, who can be left homeless and without resources as a consequence of relationship break down. This is a much greater issue of injustice in practice than the difficulties of some same sex couples, which as we have seen have in many ways already been addressed or can be covered by private arrangements, affect far fewer adults, and even less children. In our view what is urgently needed is a campaign by the government to publicise the existing law to ensure that more people know that there is no such thing as common law marriage, and to encourage more cohabiting couples to ensure their own, and their children's, rights are properly protected if their relationship breaks down by getting married. Wider Issues Family life in our society is under stress. Relationship breakdown is at an all time high, and the forces which seem to grip so many adult lives and tear away at family stability seem stronger than ever. We very badly need as a society to think long and hard about how to support marriage and the family in the long term interests of all of us in England and Wales, and especially of our children. We do not believe these proposals will particularly help do this. To be sure, when it comes to identifying the really strong forces attacking marriage and family life it has to be recognized that today the status of same sex relationships is not high up the list: there are many deeper currents which militate against family stability now which must be addressed. These include a prevailing culture obsessed with sex which devalues commitment and faithfulness in relationships; an economic environment which fails to support marriage, imposes excessive working hours and leaves families with children without a proper work/life balance; and an education system that ill equips too many for adult relationships and parental responsibility, to name only a few. The government needs to pay far more attention to what it can do to support the institution of marriage, encourage stability in relationships, and combat an increasingly tawdry media culture. This is the really pressing agenda for family policy today. As churches we too need to examine what more we should be doing to foster family stability and effectively promote the values we stand for in human relationships. Conclusion We believe the government's proposals to create civil partnerships for same sex couples would not promote the common good, and we therefore strongly oppose them. They would in the long term serve to undermine marriage and the family for the reasons set out in paragraphs 9-12 above. They are not needed to defend fundamental human rights or remedy significant injustices for same-sex couples, as these have either already been substantially addressed or can largely be addressed by the couple entering into contractual arrangements privately. Moreover, the government's proposals do nothing to tackle what is in fact a very much bigger issue, namely the lack of rights enjoyed by cohabiting heterosexual couples and their children, many of whom wrongly believe they are protected by 'common law marriage.' The government needs to publicise their lack of rights, and strongly advocate the obvious solution, which is marriage. Finally, we wish to emphasise that whilst these specific proposals are neither necessary nor desirable, it nonetheless remains essential that the legitimate rights of everyone, whatever their sexual orientation, are affirmed and protected. Many recent changes in the law to combat unjust discrimination against homosexual people were necessary and important, and we strongly support them. For our part we wish to re-iterate our commitment to advocating and promoting the common good of everyone in our society, and also our particular pastoral concern for homosexual people in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual people are to be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity."[13][13] Sadly, this is still not always the reality either in our society or in the Church, and we must all continue to work to achieve it. Notes [1][1] As Chairman of the Committee for Marriage and Family Life I was asked to prepare a response on behalf of our Bishops conference. I have received very helpful advice from a working group which the Committee set up. (The members were Gillian Bishop, Nicholas Coote, Ceridwen Roberts, Ann Knowles Foster, Rosemary Keenan and Frank Hacklett) and a number of individuals and groups within the church have kindly sent me their thoughts and comments. In addition, by coincidence during the summer of 2003 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome published "Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons" to assist Catholic bishops and others around the world in their dialogue with public authorities on this subject. Naturally I have drawn on that too, and I have also consulted fellow bishops in England and Wales. [2][2] Letter on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1986, para 16 [3][3] Civil Partnership consultation document, para 1.3 [4][4] ibid. para 2.6 [5][5] ibid. para1.2 [6][6] "Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons" CDF July 2003 §6 [7][7] CDF July 2003 §6 [8][8] Ghaidan v Mendoza[2002] 4 All ER 1162, where the Court of Appeal extended entitlement of a survivor of a long-term same ­sex partnership of 30 years when the landlord sought to evict the survivor under the rent act [9][9] Whilst strongly endorsing the principle of non-discrimination at work on grounds of religion and sexual orientation, the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales together with the Church of England were also concerned that the new regulations gave due recognition to the rights of religious organizations to safeguard their ethos. [10][10] Family Change 1999-2001, research report 180, Dept for Work and Pensions 2003 [11][11] Government consultation paper, footnote on page 68 [12][12] ibid, para 2.7 [13][13] Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2358
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