A Jewish Couple's Battle for Civil Partnership Equality in the U.K.

Opposite-sex couples in Britain should have the option to choose civil partnership instead of marriage, just like same-sex couples do.

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Those of you, who, like me, love a sneaky peak at the Jewish Chronicle’s “hatches, matches and dispatches” over Friday night dinner at your parents’ might have noticed a first-of-its-kind and slightly unusual announcement in December 2013: My partner, Charles Keidan, and I announced our engagement to become civil partners. I say “unusual” because U.K. law continues to ban opposite-sex couples’ access to civil partnerships.

Not the types to take this kind of blatant discrimination lying down, last month Charles and I launched a petition and legal challenge to the U.K. government in the High Court. Consequently, a year after our original announcement, we’ve found ourselves back in the Jewish Chronicle. I’m not sure which story brings our families less nachas...

To readers in Israel, our struggle for equal civil partnerships might seem like a diasporic luxury. After all, in Israel there is no civil marriage. Mixed faith couples are prevented from getting married, as are same-sex couples. Jews can only be legally married by an Orthodox rabbi, violating the freedom of conscience of those belonging to other Jewish denominations, like Conservative and Reform. In fact, Israel finds itself amongst the world’s more oppressive states when it comes to marriage law.

Thankfully, the situation in the U.K. is very different. Religious and civil marriage have coexisted since 1836, and in 2013, a major milestone was reached with the legalization of same-sex marriage. The social significance and symbolism of opening marriage to same-sex couples cannot be overstated. My partner and I campaigned for equal marriage, including via British Jews for Equal Marriage, a social media campaign we set up with friends.

Sadly though, even in the U.K. full relationship equality has yet to be achieved. Six aspects of discrimination remain, including legislation explicitly banning the Churches of England and Wales from performing religious same-sex marriages, and discrepancies in pension inheritance rights between same- and opposite-sex married couples. Another prominent inequality is the continued prohibition on opposite-sex couples’ access to civil partnerships.

This restriction is problematic for long-term cohabiting couples who do not wish to marry but nevertheless want legal protections, like exemption from paying inheritance tax on their deceased partner’s assets and entitlement to their deceased partner’s pension. To many, marriage is a meaningful expression of their love and relationships, and of course lots of couples have established equality within their marriages. But it is impossible to deny that marriage as a social institution, both in the past and in many places in the present, has been bound up with the mistreatment of women.

This inequality is evident within the context of the Orthodox Jewish community in which I grew up, as well as in secular civil marriage. Though rituals surrounding weddings, such as virginal white wedding dresses and segregated bachelor and bachelorette parties, can be avoided, the social and familial pressure to participate in them remains considerable. And at least in the U.K., some of the problematic aspects of marriage are unavoidable since they are grounded in law: The bride and groom must list their “condition” as either “bachelor” or “spinster,” “widow” or “widower.” There is no space on the marriage certificate for details of the mothers of the contracting parties, only for those of the fathers, meaning marriage, as an instrument of public record, serves only to trace patrilineal dynasties, effectively writing women out of history. Upon marriage, a woman may change her name with only her marriage certificate whereas a man must officially change his name via deed poll, a more complicated and costly procedure. Even if the couple regard themselves as partners, in law they become husband and wife, terms that connote gender roles and expectations, such as breadwinner and homemaker.

By contrast, civil partnerships are a modern, symmetrical social institution free of the patriarchal baggage and lingering sexist trappings of marriage. As a couple who want to be partners in law as well as in life, Charles and I thought an official civil partnership would perfectly capture and express the essence of our relationship whilst giving us almost identical legal rights and responsibilities as marriage.

But when we sought to give “notice of intention” to form a civil partnership at our local registry office in London in October 2014, we were refused by the registrar, explicitly on the basis of our genders and sexual orientation. We are trying to change this status quo by asking the U.K.’s Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan to open civil partnerships to all, regardless of sexual orientation.

The response to our efforts has been overwhelming. In only one month, more than 1,000 people have signed our petition and contributed over $10,000 to our legal fund. Dozens have sent messages of support and offers of help, including many Jewish friends and colleagues. Media outlets, amongst them the BBC and The Guardian, have taken notice. Prominent human rights campaigners, like Peter Tatchell, have given us their backing. Even critics have ultimately concluded that it doesn’t make sense to prevent opposite-sex couples from accessing civil partnerships.

There is also political support. The Liberal Democrats, part of the current government coalition, passed a resolution in 2010 calling on the government to open civil partnerships to all. And a current cross-party Private Members Bill proposes an amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to enable opposite-sex couples to become civil partners. Sadly though, the U.K. Government Equalities Office, the very body responsible for eliminating inequality, has so far refused to acknowledge the disparity in access or take action to open civil partnerships to all.

We hope that 2015 will be the year that full relationship equality finally comes to the U.K. But, as with the struggle for same-sex marriage – and with struggles against discrimination and inequality all over the world – hope alone may not suffice. Instead, significant legal, public and political pressure will be needed to change the law. Then, perhaps Charlie and I will finally make it into the Jewish Chronicle’s “Faces and Places” section.

Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld is a political scientist researching the politics of reproduction and the body. She tweets @beccasteinfeld