Wednesday, August 02, 2006

British Judge Dismisses Bid for Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage

A British judge on Monday dismissed a bid by two female professors to have their same-sex wedding in Canada recognized as a marriage in Britain. Judge Mark Potter, head of Britain's High Court Family Division, dismissed the claim by Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger that in defining their relationship as a civil partnership - rather than a marriage - Britain had violated their human rights.

Granting their request would risk undermining the time-honored institution of marriage, he said. "To accord a same-sex relationship the title and status of marriage would be to fly in the face of the (European) Convention (on Human Rights) as well as to fail to recognize physical reality," Potter wrote in his ruling. Potter said there was a "long-standing definition and acceptance" that the term marriage referred to a relationship between a man and a woman, primarily designed for producing and rearing children.

Wilkinson, 49, and Kitzinger, 52, wed in Vancouver, British Columbia, after the province ushered in laws allowing same-sex marriages in 2003, but said the judge on Monday had effectively stripped away the legitimacy of their union. "We are deeply disappointed by the judgment, not just for ourselves but for other gay couples and families," Wilkinson said after walking from the courtroom hand in hand with her partner. "It perpetuates discrimination and it sends out the message that lesbian and gay marriages are inferior." [Since they cannot produce children, they are]

Potter said he believed people across Europe would acknowledge the importance of upholding a traditional concept of marriage. "The belief that this form of relationship is the one which best encourages stability in a well-regulated society is not a disreputable or outmoded notion based upon ideas of exclusivity, marginalization, disapproval or discrimination against homosexuals," Potter said.

Wilkinson and Kitzinger were told by Potter they have the right to challenge the ruling at Britain's Court of Appeal. But Kitzinger said their life savings have been exhausted by the court's decision that they must pay the government's legal costs of 25,000 pounds (US$46,590; euro36,500). "We are hopeful we will be able to appeal but need help to fund the cost, which will likely be the same amount again," Kitzinger told The Associated Press. "Though we're disappointed, we are sure there will be a day - within our lifetimes - when there will be equality for same-sex marriage. This judgment will not stand the test of time."

Joanne Sawyer, a legal officer with civil liberties group Liberty, who represented the couple, said she also believed the ruling would in future be seen as out-of-step with contemporary values. The Netherlands, Canada, Belgium and Spain have legalized same-sex marriage, while several other European countries have laws similar to Britain -where same-sex couples have the right to form legally binding civil partnerships, entitling them to most of the same tax and pension rights as married couples. In the United States, only the state of Massachusetts allows gay marriage, while Vermont and Connecticut permit civil unions.



UK prime minister Tony Blair delivered a much-trailed public lecture this week on the future of `public health'. Actually, it was really a speech about the relationship between the state and society. Blair told his audience in Nottingham: `For a hundred years or more the defining division in politics, in Britain and elsewhere, was about the role of the state. Essentially, progressives believed in its ability to improve society; conservatives feared its interference stifled personal liberty. The division became caricatured as between those who favoured a "big" state and those who favoured a "minimalist" one.. Underlying the formation of New Labour was really an attempt to consign such a division to the past.'

The immediate reaction of many was to condemn creeping privatisation of public services. As an editorial in the Guardian put it: `If the strategy is replacing state services with private facilities, ministers must explain the practical justification as they see it. If they are silent, or have no robust case, they will pay the political price.' The lack of faith in public bodies to run public services is striking. While privatisation is usually promoted as a cost-saving measure, in reality the government happily pays more for the private sector to run services in many instances. However, all that was only one small part of Blair's speech. What underlies his vision (for want of a better word) is the feeling that society is running increasingly out of control, and that new ways must be found to control the organisations and people within it.

Blair's measures have come about as a result of the decline of the myriad institutions that used to glue society together, most notably the church, the monarchy, political parties, trade unions and the family. While these various institutions had competing interests in many respects, the existence of a relatively small number of bodies that could exercise influence over the mass of the population meant that governments always knew who to talk to, which loyalties to appeal to, and how to get things done. Now, even though the status quo is less threatened than at any time in well over a century, governments feel they have less control over society than before - and to some extent, they're right.

It is no coincidence that the subject of Blair's speech was public health, even though he was really talking about the state and society. That is because the provision of health - and the exercise of influence through health messages - has become central to the reformulation of the state's relationship to society and the individual. Blair said he will increase both choice and responsibility for individuals: `A state that sees its role as empowering the individual, not trying to make their choices for them, can only work on the basis of a different relationship between citizen and state. Government can't be the only one with the responsibility if it's not the only one with the power. The responsibility must be shared and the individual helped, but with an obligation also to help themselves.'

Bizarrely, even as he claims to be bringing the `nanny state' to an end, it's quite clear that Blair believes government should formulate what is good for us - and then, whether by persuasion or heavy-handed legislation, get us to do it. So on climate change, he said: `Government can give people the information, legislate and regulate to encourage sustainable living, help business to function in a more environmentally responsible way, work with other nations to develop the right international framework. But it can't "do it" by itself. "Doing it" will depend on the decisions and choices of millions of individuals and companies. Our task is to empower them to make the right ones.'

This is a good deal more authoritarian than Blair would have us believe. Couched in the language of empowerment, in practice it means forcing through unpopular rules and regulations on recycling; banning smoking in public places; giving mothers the third degree if they can't or won't breastfeed; demanding that overweight people eat the right foods and do sufficient exercise; and various other measures through which the authorities will actually micro-manage our lives.

In the process, every aspect of daily life is instrumentalised, from getting our kids to play in order to meet an exercise target to the neighbourhood project that gets turned into a social inclusion exercise. Ask anyone who has ever tried to apply for funding from a local authority or a quango and they will give you chapter and verse on the ways in which your activity is transformed into a means for the authorities to meet various social, health or political targets.

It isn't just individuals who should worry. Businesses are increasingly buried under a mountain of regulation, which shows that while the government has little faith in the public sector it is equally keen to keep the private sector on a tight leash, too. Blair wants to encourage greater participation by business in health initiatives, but if business doesn't play ball, legislation will follow.

Blair argues that these interventions are no big deal. After all, he asks, didn't people complain when governments decided to intervene to clean up big cities in the nineteenth century? `The role for government was clear. This required collective action. It meant property rights needed to be disregarded and land compulsorily purchased, both big issues for a laissez-faire time.' But the comparison is a false one. Cleaning up a river, or building a sewage network, is beyond the capabilities of any individual and requires an organising body - which has become part of the state's remit. Telling me how to live my life and to balance the (small, if any) risk of an early death versus the pleasure of a few vices is not the job of government.

What we need is not an `enabling' government, if we're only enabled to do what the authorities want. As Mick Hume has argued before on spiked, we need the power to make real choices, even if they're the `wrong' choices (see The more they talk about `choice', the less we get, by Mick Hume). New Labour has launched numerous attacks on our freedoms, both big and small. Now Blair says he wants government to be even `tougher, more active in setting standards and enforcing them'. The rest of us need to make a choice of our own: are we prepared to allow our lives to be run by others, or do we want the freedom to decide for ourselves how to live?


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