Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone recently suggested that the Coalition government may decide to expand the rights afforded to gays and lesbians wishing to enter into civil partnerships. While certainly a step toward parity, a more equitable solution would reduce the role of the state in our personal lives.
Gays and lesbians have been able to enter into contracts called civil partnerships since the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 went into effect one year later in 2005. The arrangement grants same-sex couples parity with married opposite-sex couples in virtually all areas, including those involving financial matters, taxes, parental responsibility, next-of-kin rights, and immigration among others. There remain only minor procedural differences between the two contracts, which distinguish each in terms of the way in which they are formed. An amendment to the Equality Act 2010 repealed a prohibition on civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds, and Ms. Featherstone has indicated that the current government may move to permit religious elements in civil partnerships. Neither the change to civil partnerships, nor its reclassification as marriage, would have any significant impact provided that religious organizations remain free to choose who they marry, as differences between the two are merely semantic and technical in nature.
However noble a goal true marriage equality may be, the current discussion is misguided, as those who present the discussion in terms of “pro-gay marriage” and “anti-gay marriage” ignore a third alternative: marriage privatization.
Under a system of marriage licensed by the state, the government offers only one type of contract into which people may enter. This contract is inflexible, and, as it is written, debated, and passed by Parliament, it is not the ideal contract for every couple. The privatization of marriage, an idea raised more than a decade ago by libertarian David Boaz, is not only a viable alternative; it permits a much broader range of options available to individuals, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Marriage licensing is merely a form of regulation, and is identical to any other form of state licensing. Privatization would end this regulation, and instead allow private individuals to contract with one another to design a legal structure most suitable for their needs. The government could enforce such contracts as it does any formal business arrangement. Many people would surely opt for a traditional marriage contract, and would be able to pursue a contract identical to that which exists today. Religious organizations would be able to hold ceremonies for whichever couples they would like, and heterosexual couples who do not agree with the connotation attached to marriage, such as Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle, a heterosexual couple denied a civil partnership last year, would be permitted to contract with one another in a secular manner.
Allowing people to form contracts themselves would not rob any individual of rights or abilities. Instead, it would increase choice and reduce government intervention in our private lives.