This week, Policy Exchange published a new piece of research, What’s In A Name, which considered whether there was a case for equal marriage. We concluded that the case for equal marriage is strong. It would be good for society, good for the institution of marriage and good for gay and lesbian people.
An important part of the report involved considering what had happened in the eleven countries that have already legislated for equal marriage – as well as in the six US states.
It is notable that no country to have introduced equal marriage has turned its back on the measure. Electorates also seem to grow increasingly supportive of gay marriage when they have seen it work in practice. In Holland, for example, support for equal marriage now stands at some 82%. In Spain, 62% of voters approved of equal marriage when it was first introduced in 2005 – a figure that rose to almost 75% by 2008. Only 18% of Spanish voters want the law to be repealed.
And what about the effect of marriage as an institution? Opponents of change suggest that marriage would be damaged if gay and lesbian people were allowed to marry. There is little evidence that it has had this kind of effect internationally. The number of divorces after the introduction of marriage equality went down in the Netherlands, Canada and South Africa, as well as flatlining in Belgium.
There was a rise in divorce rates in Spain, but this is more likely to have been caused by an ‘Express Divorce Bill’ introduced at the same time as equal marriage, which dramatically liberalized previously strict divorce laws in Spain.
MV Lee Badgett undertook a considerable study of the impact of equal marriage in the Netherlands, since it was introduced in 2001. Her findings suggest that she: ‘Looked hard for evidence of changes in the cultural idea of marriage and for evidence that heterosexuals and gay and lesbian couples have different ideas and behavior related to marriage – but I couldn’t find any.
‘The trends in marriage and divorce didn’t change… all the evidence suggests that same-sex couples will fit right into our current understanding of marriage… Marriage itself will not be affected.’
Our report recommended that safeguards should be put in place to ensure that religious institutions should not be forced to marry same sex people against their will. On the flip side, we believe that religions, such as the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews, which want to marry people of the same-sex should be allowed to do so.
Such a system is practiced in a number of countries around the world. In Sweden, individual religious institutions are given the ability to opt out of, rather than opting in to, the ability to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. In the Netherlands, it is up to individual religious institutions and the Protestant Church of the Netherlands says that individual churches should decide whether or not to bless a same-sex marriage. Similar autonomy for religious institutions is given in Spain and Canada.
We also recommend that civil partnerships should be abolished once equal marriage is introduced. As believers in marriage, we see no sense in having an alternative institution to marriage once equality has been achieved. Again, there are international lessons to learn from. Indeed, in two US states, Connecticut and New Hampshire, existing civil unions were automatically converted into full marriage. We do not propose going that far, but do propose creating a ‘fast track’ for existing civil partners to convert to marriage.
Considering the international evidence is hugely instructive when considering the case for and against equal marriage. The bleaker warnings of opponents of equal marriage haven’t been borne out by events. Traditional marriage has not been weakened or changed and divorce rates have not gone up. One of the hallmarks of the international evidence is the increasing popularity of equal marriage after it has been introduced. It seems clear that the more the public know about equal marriage, the happier they are to allow it.
David Skelton is deputy director of Policy Exchange. You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton. Read their report on same-sex marriage equality here.