According to Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights -
"Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to national laws governing the exercise of this right."
In Hamer v United Kingdom (1982) 4 EHRR 139, the European Court of Human Rights stated that marriage, in the context of Article 12, is the 'formation of a legally recognised binding association between a man and a woman' which thereby involves the acquisition of legally recognised social status. The Hamer case concerned Article 12 in relation to prisoners and a breach of Art 12 was found. Later, in Rees v United Kingdom (1987) 9 EHRR 56, the E Ct Hr stated that the right to marry guaranteed by Art. 12 refers to the traditional marriage between persons of opposite biological sex. There was no breach of Art. 12 in the case of a female to male transsexual. See now the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
In Schalk and Kopf v Austria 2010, the question of Article 12 and same sex marriage was directly raised at the E Ct HR. Interestingly, the UK intervened in this case. A male couple complained that the legal impossibility of a same-sex couple marrying under Austrian law violated their right to respect for private and family life and the principle of non-discrimination. Held, rejecting the complaint, that there is no breach of Article 12 where marriage is available to two people of the opposite sex but not two people of the same sex.
Hence, there is no obligation placed by the Convention on States to recognise same sex marriages or, for that matter, civil partnerships. Of course, the absence of such an obligation does not prevent States from deciding to recognise same-sex marriages or civil partnerships and, in the U.K., civil partnerships have been recognised since December 2005 under the Civil Partnerships Act 2004. A number of European (and other) States already recognise same-sex marriage - e.g. Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada.
is now consulting on Equal Civil Marriage - see the Consultation Document. The Preface to the document commences:
A further development at the E Ct HR:
This Gas and Dubois case is discussed in an article in The Telegraph 21st March 2012 - Gay Marriage is not a human right, according to European ruling In this article there is a suggestion that - " .. if same-sex marriage is legalised in the UK it will be illegal for the Government to prevent such marriages happening in religious premises."
At this stage, I doubt that this will be the case though there is little doubt that the point will be eventually raised. Perhaps sensibly, the government seems to be trying to avoid conflict with religious bodies. Furthermore, Strasbourg jurisprudence, undoubtedly gives States considerable latitude ("margin of appreciation") as to what they do in these very sensitive areas. The government's proposal does not involve requiring religious bodies to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The Marilyn Stowe blog has an excellent post - "Should the government legalise gay marriage"
See also the National Secular Society item about the consultation.
I would be particularly interested to receive comments from any discrimination law experts with regard to the above.
The government's consultation closes on 14th June 2012.
See Equality Act 2010 s.202. A consultation on Civil Partnership on Religious Premises ended in June 2011. The government's response may be seen at the Home Office website. A number of questions are answered in this document issued by the Home Office in December 2011.
The UK Human Rights blog looked at Gas and Dubois v France - see "Can a homosexual person adopt his or her partner's child? The case of Gas and Dubois v France" - Daniel Sokol