By Reporter
NBC News
updated 4/22/2004 7:24:39 AM ET 2004-04-22T11:24:39

With the issue of gay marriage still roiling the American political landscape, close ally Britain is quietly setting course for formal recognition for civil unions, following a path carved out by several other European Union countries.

A civil partnership bill was introduced in the House of Parliament earlier this month and the House of Lords was set to consider the legislation on Thursday. According to a government spokeswoman, the bill could become law by November, allowing same-sex couples to legalize their partnership a year later.

“(The bill is) important in terms of respect and dignity and justice because it says we as a country and a government value committed relationships,” Jacqui Smith, the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, said after the legislation was drafted.

To enter a civil partnership, couples will need to sign a register in front of a registration officer and two witnesses. 

The union is similar to the responsibilities that come with marriage such that each partner has a responsibility to one another and children of the family.

The bill will give couples social security benefits in the case of a partner's death, as well as  pension benefits and the ability to gain parental responsibility for their civil partner’s children.

Some criticism
This legislation follows in the footsteps of nine other European Union countries that have recognized the unions of same-sex couples.

Overall, Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry’s Women and Equality Unity found 83 percent of the responses to the proposal for civil partnership were in support for the bill.

Among the opponents was The Christian Institute, a non-denominational organization promoting the Christian faith, which is lobbying for the legislation to be defeated.

“Civil partnership as an institution will be virtually identical to marriage and would entitle the partners to the same status as a married couple, even though their relationship did not meet the same criteria,” the organization said. “This devalues and undermines the institution of marriage.”

Welcomed by gay groups
As expected, Alan Wardle of Stonewall, a gay-rights lobbying group in London, hailed the legislation.  “A lot has changed in the country in the past seven to eight years and this is another step forward.”

However, David Allison from the gay-rights direct action group, Outrage, noted that the bill short-changes straight couples who choose not to get married.  Heterosexuals, choosing not to be legally bound by marriage, are excluded from obtaining a civil partnership, he said.

As for gay couples, he complained that the pension provisions won’t kick in until the year 2010.  “If (the government) can find billions of pounds to fight wars in Iraq, then they can find money for gay people paying taxes.”

Other homosexuals remain distrustful. One gay man said he and his partner of 12 years have drawn up wills instead of taking the public route. It was a safer way to legalize their commitment as his partner’s family is not aware of their relationship.

Unlike the United States where the two major political parties seem divided on the issue, the governing Labour Party and the main opposition see eye to eye on civil unions.

Yet, Allison remains skeptical of the Conservative Party. “Gays still see the Tory party as the enemy,” he said.

Divisive issue
But the broad support remains at odds with the situation in the United States, where courts and state legislatures are grappling with momentum toward some kind of recognition for gay couples – triggering an equally vigorous push-back by conservative groups.

In response, President Bush has put his support behind an amendment to the Constitution that would enshrine his view that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

For gays here, the developments in the United States are depressing.

“Britain is more progressive on the issue of gay rights,” said Robert Reynolds, a 33-year-old living in London.

Timothy Lock, 34, communications manager of Claridge’s hotel, agreed. "It is time for gay people to not have to ride in the back section of the bus,” he said.  “If [my boss] accepts me then why can’t George Bush?”

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