LONDON -- Marriage-minded gays and lesbians can begin tying the knot in Britain on Saturday, becoming the latest same-sex couples in Europe and beyond to have the right to do so and fulfilling a dream made possible by a Conservative-led government.
A handful of town halls across the country prepared to open at the stroke of midnight to allow nuptials that jubilant supporters called long overdue and opponents deplored as an attack on traditional values.
“It’s a landmark,” said Deputy Prime Minister
The expansion of marriage was mostly a symbolic victory for gay-rights advocates rather than a practical one. Since 2005, same-sex couples have been able to enter civil partnerships -- an innovation by the then-Labor government that conferred virtually all the same rights and legal benefits as marriage.
Campaigners decided to press for equality in nomenclature when the current government, which came to power in 2010, signaled its openness to the idea. Prime Minister
"I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative," Cameron said at a party conference in 2011, delighting gay activists.
"It was surprising how quickly a political consensus emerged on it," said Richard Lane, a spokesman for the Stonewall gay-rights organization. "Our relationships are no different, so why shouldn't they be recognized in the same way?"
To satisfy bishops who tried to block the bill, the new law allowing same-sex marriage specifically forbids the Church of England from performing those rites. Other denominations and faiths, such as Quakers and some Jewish groups, can host same-sex weddings if they choose.
Britain is now one of about a dozen European nations, including France and Spain, that permit same-sex couples to get hitched. Italy, which hosts the Vatican in its backyard, remains the only major European country not to offer gays and lesbians some form of civil union or domestic partnership.
Not all groups in Britain endorsed the change. Fiona O'Reilly of Catholic Voices described same-sex marriage as "bad for society."
“When you say sexual difference doesn’t matter, marriage isn’t about a man and a woman, you see concepts such as husband and wife, father and mother, just start to disappear from legislation,” O’Reilly told the
The leader of the fast-rising United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, also opposes marriage equality. A party member recently attracted attention, and ridicule, for suggesting that the heavy rains and flooding across Britain this past winter were divine retribution for Parliament's approval of same-sex marriage.
In a survey released Friday by a British radio network, 20% of respondents said they would refuse to attend the wedding of a gay couple.
"That also shows that 80% of people are looking forward to celebrating same-sex weddings with their friends and families," said Stonewall's Lane.
So far, no registrars in Britain have declared themselves unwilling to perform such ceremonies, as has happened with some county clerks in the United States. In any case, they would not be given the option to recuse themselves under the law.