TV & Radio
UK’s first legal gay marriages will be in Scotland
By Frank Gilfeather - Sunday Herald
It is expected to be the showbiz wedding of the year when Elton John marries his partner David Furnish on December 21, but it will no longer enjoy the symbolism of being among the first legally recognised gay marriages in the UK.
Like everyone else, Elton believed the date to be the earliest allowed under the new Civil Partnership Act. But thanks to confusion at the Registrar General’s office, five Scottish couples are to marry the day before and become the first legally married gay couples in the UK.
The legislation, which comes into force on December 5, includes a waiting period of at least 15 days after notice is given before a marriage can take place. This stipulation led the five Scottish couples to plan their weddings for December 20.
However, the Registrar General had misunderstood the legislation, which actually stated the 15-day countdown began “the day after the notice is recorded” – making December 21 the earliest possible date.
But rather than have the couples rearrange their special day, a decision was taken to give the couples – four from Edinburgh and one from Aberdeen – special dispensation.
Duncan McNiven, Scotland’s Registrar General, said: “It was a minor mistake on our part because we had simply misunderstood what the legislation said. We thought the 15-day rule started on the day the notice was given, but you actually count one day after the notice is given. We had been saying the 20th was the first possible date when in actual fact it was the 21st.
“Giving special dispensation is not an unknown thing, we do about 100 a year. It’s just nice our mistake has meant Scotland is pioneering civil partnerships, even if it is just by a day.”
Aberdeen-based John Stewart and Neil Fletcher, both Lib Dem representatives on Aberdeen City Council, will take advantage of the new law on December 20.
“I’m not quite sure what happened,” said 40-year-old Fletcher, “but after speaking to the registrars in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the Registrar General intervened and it was agreed there were extenuating circumstances, especially as a great deal of money had already been spent on various arrangements by the Scottish couples. We were told we could go ahead with the December 20 ceremonies.
“Edinburgh’s registry office opens half an hour before Aberdeen’s and I believe there are ceremonies in Edinburgh at 9.30am and at 9.45am and we will have our ceremony at King’s College Chapel in Old Aberdeen at 10am.
“We might not be the first gay couple to go through the civil partnership but we’ll beat all those, like Sir Elton John and his partner, David Furnish, who thought that on December 21 they would be the first.”
Accountant Fletcher, convener of the city council’s resources management committee, is originally from Stoke. He and Stewart, a 32-year-old from Kilmarnock, met at a party 13 years ago and have been together ever since.
Their plans for the big day include a champagne reception, lunch for 100 guests at the university’s historic Elphinstone Hall and a party in the Beach Ballroom in the evening.
Both were disappointed, however, that some councils were still undecided over whether to sanction gay weddings.
“It is disappointing that there are suggestions some councils may choose not to go ahead with the ceremonies,” said Fletcher.
“Whether they do or not will be up to them but what we’ve heard so far is disappointing, for the same reason it would be were they to refuse to carry out ceremonies for mixed-race couples. That’s the comparison I would make.”
His partner, vice-convener of the council’s education and leisure committee, accused local authorities opposed to gay weddings of “burying their heads in the sand” and said such an attitude left them wide open to a legal challenge.
Some councils plan to have registrars performing only the basic registration, the minimum required under the legislation.
Stewart claimed that if some councils did not offer a proper ceremony for a civil partnership, as they did in the case of marriages, and offered only a signing of a civil partnership, it would be a breach of European law. He believes any challenge to that approach would be upheld, although it would probably be a lengthy battle.
“It is strange because the Registrar General recommends offering ceremonies,” Stewart said. “He advises they should be available. I could understand after the controversy there was over Section 28 how some councils might react over the prospect of whether there should be civil partnerships or actual civil ceremonies. Church ministers are specifically excluded from performing any ceremony even though a minister might be willing to do it.”
Tim Hopkins from Equality Network said the organisation “welcomed” the Registrar General’s use of his powers of discretion to allow the early marriages to go ahead but echoed Stewart’s view that councils which do not permit civil partnerships may be breaking the law.
“There are quite a number of councils still thinking about it but it is my belief if they don’t allow it to go ahead then they are in breach of their equal opportunities policy, and human rights.
“In the long run, we would like to see both civil marriages and civil partnerships being made available to same and mixed-sex couples.”
But Gordon Macdonald, parliamentary officer for the Christian Action, Research and Education (CARE) for Scotland, said: “MSPs didn’t properly debate this issue in the first instance, it was pushed down to Westminster because the parliament didn’t want something controversial being discussed here. People haven’t been able to express their views about this.
“Our concern is that civil partnerships were setting up a system that was essentially mirroring marriage. We disagree with this in principle.”
He added: “There is also an issue about ceremonies. This was purely about registration and now certain groups are calling for ceremonies as a means to suit their own agenda. This shouldn’t be changed and this is another reason why the matter should have been more fully debated at the time.”
07 August 2005