Is there a case for gay marriage? Absolutely
18 September 2012
There is a compelling case for letting gay and lesbian people marry, as long as safeguards are put in place to protect religious institutions, writes David Skelton, deputy director of Policy Exchange
The coalition government's proposals to introduce civil marriage for same sex couples have provoked controversy and a wide ranging debate. The official consultation into the proposals was one of the largest government consultations in history and the petition opposing equal marriage has gathered over 500,000 signatures. Our research, 'What's In A Name' considered the arguments for and against equal marriage – taking an evidence based approach to a highly polarised debate.
Our report found that there is a compelling case for change. We found that marriage is a powerful and beneficial social institution – bringing real benefits to individuals, families and communities. Married people tend to be healthier and wealthier and the 'commitment device' of marriage means that married couples are much more likely to stay together than other couples. It seems perverse to deny these benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian people without good reason.
This is especially the case as the benefits of marriage could have particular benefits for gay and lesbian people. A recent report suggested that, over the past year, 3 per cent of gay men and 5 per cent of bisexual men had attempted suicide, compared to 0.4 per cent of all men.
The gay community has also witnessed a recent rise in HIV/Aids levels. One in ten gay men in London is now HIV positive. In 2010, 3,000 gay and bisexual men were diagnosed with HIV - the highest figure to date and gay men accounted for 45 per cent of the new HIV diagnoses in that year. There's also evidence that gay people are more likely to be involved in high-risk activities, such as alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity and unprotected sex, with a gay 'scene' described by Attitude editor Matthew Todd as "incredibly sexualised".
There's strong evidence that marriage acts as a "commitment device" and has a "pacifying effect", encouraging commitment, long-term relationships and lower levels of risk-taking. The power of the social institution of marriage and the social incentives it provides would only be beneficial to gay people.
Our report also analysed the case against equal marriage. Some opponents of same sex marriage suggest that the reform would diminish religious freedom, with suggestions that religious institutions could be forced, against their will to hold or bless same sex marriages. We found little evidence that this could be the case. Nevertheless, any political or judicial intervention to force religious institutions to marry gay people would be unacceptable and legislation should be drafted to include watertight safeguards for religious institutions.
Religious freedom for institutions, such as the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews, who do wish to marry gay and lesbian couples should also be respected. Whether individual religious institutions decide to conduct same sex marriages should be the choice of the individual religious institution, rather than politicians or the judiciary.
Our analysis of the impact of equal marriage in other countries where it has been introduced shows that the reform has led to minimal or no change in the stability or the nature of marriage. Following the introduction of equal marriage, the number of divorces after the introduction of marriage equality reduced in the Netherlands, Canada and South Africa and flatlined in Belgium.
An analysis of the history of marriage in England also shows that the nature of marriage has changed many times in recent centuries, without damaging the institution. These reforms included introducing civil marriages in 1836 and allowing Jews, Quakers and Catholics to marry under their own faith. The state has intervened on numerous occasions to ensure that marriage is reflective of the nature of society. Equal marriage would be firmly within that tradition.
For the Conservative element of the coalition, equal marriage would represent a totemic opportunity to banish the memory of Conservative governments introducing legislation, such as Section 28, which were seen as being discriminatory against gay people. Conversely, if the government decides to backtrack on the reforms, it could help to retoxify the image of the Conservatives even among voters who haven't been following the debate closely.
Our report concluded that a compelling case exists for allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, providing that adequate safeguards are put in place to protect religious institutions. Equal marriage would extend a beneficial institution to a section of society presently prevented from enjoying its benefits. It would also make clear to gay and lesbian people are fully accepted into the mainstream of British life.