If you don’t marry, don’t expect the benefits


Those particular about their ‘lifestyle choice’ have been undermining marriage for decades

Tomorrow the Court of Appeal will hear a case brought by a man and a woman who want to have a civil partnership which the law won’t allow them. Civil partnerships, introduced in 2004, provide a range of legal rights to “two people of the same sex” but not those of the opposite sex.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who have been living together for the past six years, claim this discriminates against them. According to the equal partnerships campaign, almost three million heterosexual couples are living together in Britain and almost four in ten have dependent children. They claim that such couples are disadvantaged because they have no legal rights over matters like property, children or pensions.

True enough. The reason, however, is that those rights are specific to marriage because they flow from the commitments and obligations married couples undertake towards each other. People who merely cohabit choose not to saddle themselves with those commitments and obligations.

In January the High Court, which ruled against Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan, noted that they had “deep-rooted and genuine ideological objections to the institution of marriage”. They are entitled to disdain marriage but they are not entitled then to demand its benefits. If they want those benefits there’s a simple way to obtain them: get married.

Or they could go and live in the Isle of Man. In the summer the Manx authorities legalised marriage and civil partnerships for homosexuals and heterosexuals. The Isle of Man is now hailed by gay activists as the most progressive place in the British Isles. Who knew?

So is the status quo, as Ms Steinfeld insists, unfair on millions of cohabitees like her? Let’s look at what this means.

Civil partnerships were introduced to give gays and lesbians equality with married people, on the grounds that it was unfair for homosexuals to miss out on the same legal benefits through no choice of their own. Gays and lesbians then said that was still unfair because civil partnerships did not have the same significance as marriage. So in 2013 the state legalised same-sex marriage — even though gays and lesbians could still have civil partnerships on the basis that they could not get married.

Now the Steinfeld-Keidan argument before the court is that heterosexuals, who have always been able to get married, should also be able to have civil partnerships, which were created to provide the benefits of marriage to those who couldn’t get married — simply because gays and lesbians can have both!

So a measure designed to end discrimination by heterosexuals against gays and lesbians is now being said to embed discrimination on behalf of gays and lesbians against heterosexuals, just because there’s a difference.

This bizarre argument is but the logical development of the doctrine of “lifestyle choice” which has been undermining marriage for at least five decades. Marriage is fragile. Its status was previously protected through a densely woven web of law, tradition, custom, religious belief and informal sanctions such as stigma or shame. This web has now all but disintegrated. The premise of individualistic “lifestyle choice” is that all sexual relationships have equal status. Any attempt to claim a hierarchy of values is damned as bigotry.

The idea that marriage meant commitment and obligation to others was viewed as an intolerable fetter upon the right to do your own thing. Marriage came to be seen as “just a piece of paper” and was redefined as merely a contractual arrangement. So it was hardly surprising that people in irregular sexual arrangements, straight and gay, started to clamour for equal access to its contractual advantages.

As both the boundaries and definition of marriage have blurred, it has been progressively evacuated of meaning and significance. Marriage is not just one of many equal types of relationship. Marriage is a unique institution because it uniquely safeguards the procreation and healthy upbringing of the next generation.

Of course, marriages can break down and some married couples have no children. That does not alter the fact that, across cultures and down through the centuries, the importance of marriage lies in its irreplaceable role in underpinning social order and defining the structure and moral values of a society.

Marriage is a unique institution because it uniquely safeguards the procreation and healthy upbringing of the next generation

The undermining of marriage has done serious harm. Children thrive best if brought up by their mother and father; women and children are more likely to be abused in fractured families. Yet about half of all births now take place outside marriage. Cohabiting couples, the fastest growing family type in the UK, are more than twice as likely to split up as married spouses. The undermining of marriage has created the scourge of mass fatherlessness.

The government says that civil partnerships were never intended to provide an alternative to marriage. The High Court in Steinfeld-Keidan said that a difference in treatment between gay and straight couples over civil union did not mean discrimination.

In law and in logic, of course not. That’s not the point, though. Britain has told itself for years that equality means identical treatment and difference means discrimination. Whatever the appeal court decides in this case, that pernicious orthodoxy means marriage will continue to be under the cosh.