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Homosexual couples in Britain begin civil partnerships

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (BP)–Two women were the first to take advantage of Britain’s new legalization of civil partnerships for homosexual couples when they exchanged vows and rings during a ceremony at Belfast City Hall Dec. 19.

British Parliament approved the law in November 2004, and Northern Ireland’s shorter registration period made it the first part of the United Kingdom to grant such partnerships. Similar ceremonies were to follow in Scotland Dec. 20 and in England and Wales Dec. 21, according to The Times of London newspaper.

The new law gives homosexual couples the same property and inheritance rights as married heterosexuals and entitles them to the same pension, immigration and tax benefits, The Times said.

Grainne Close, a social worker from Northern Ireland, and Shannon Sickels, a playwright from New York, were the first to receive legal recognition for their homosexual relationship when they invited 70 guests to a ceremony that included the tossing of flowers and rainbow-colored ribbon in their path. Close wore a tuxedo; Sickles a white pantsuit.

“This is about making a choice to have our civil rights acknowledged and respected and protected as any human being,” Sickels told the Associated Press.

But a few dozen people protested the ceremony by singing hymns and holding signs that said “Sodomy is sin,” AP noted.

David Sharrock, a reporter for The Times, offered this assessment:

“Happily for the couple on their big day a counter-demonstration soon formed, with humour as its main weapon. Two satirical interlopers infiltrated the anti-gay ranks wearing garish sports jackets and toothbrush moustaches but no trousers, carrying their own placards as an antidote to the religious tracts being paraded in Donegall Square,” he wrote.

“These read ‘Bring back slavery’ and ‘Earth is flat.’ There was so much laughter that even the moral indignation of the Christian fundamentalists seemed on the verge of giggles,” he continued. “At times it seemed that the excitement generated by the first occasion on which a same-sex couple could legally commit themselves to one another would descend into a punch-up. That it did not perhaps speaks volumes about how much this once dourly Presbyterian city, where playground swings used to be chained up on Sundays, has changed.”

After the ceremony for Close and Sickels, a pink stretch limousine pulled up to City Hall carrying the first male homosexual couple to receive a civil partnership license. Christopher Flanagan and Henry Kane of Belfast, wearing matching white suits, were the second couple to take advantage of the new law.

“It’s given us legal status behind our relationship, if anything goes wrong,” Flanagan told AP, noting that if one of them died, the other would inherit their property rather than family members who disapprove of their relationship.

The civil partnerships law, similar to civil union laws in Vermont and Connecticut, grants homosexual couples the legal benefits of marriage without using the word “marriage.”

Unlike the United States — where there is a significant movement to ban “gay marriage” — European counties have liberalized their laws in recent years to include homosexual couples. Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain recognize “gay marriage.” Other countries, such as Germany and Sweden, grant same-sex couples at least some of the legal benefits of marriage.

Among the nearly 700 same-sex partnerships to be legalized Dec. 21 is one involving singer Elton John and filmmaker David Furnish, AP said. They plan to have a ceremony at London’s Guildhall, where Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles in April.

Conservatives say they are not fooled by the wording of the new legal arrangement.

“We feel that it’s gay marriage in all but name,” Mike Judge, a spokesperson for the conservative Christian Institute, told USA Today. “It changes the nature of what we understand marriage to be in society: … The lifelong union of a man and woman.”

A document on the Christian Institute further states: “[O]nce marriage has been equated with such unions, where will it end? If two men can ‘marry’ or ‘partner,’ why stop there? If all relationships are equal surely the bi-sexual will need to ‘marry’ two people.”

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