LONDON, UK — Gay marriage is now legal in England and Wales after the queen gave her royal assent to a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry.
The law brought marriage equality only to England and Wales — not to the whole of the United Kingdom. Scotland, which has the authority to make its own legislation on certain issues under devolution, published a proposed gay marriage bill in its parliament last month and will consider the issue soon.
The Northern Ireland Assembly voted down a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in April.
"It’s impossible to express how much joy this historic step will bring to tens of thousands of gay people and their families and friends," Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall, told GlobalPost. "We’ll redouble our efforts in Scotland so that every single gay person in Britain will soon enjoy full equality."
The legislative process leading up to the queen's assent Wednesday saw passionate debate on all sides, along with some head-scratching public comments from lawmakers. Arguably the most famous was House of Lords member Norman Tebbit's cautioning that same-sex marriage could eventually lead to a lesbian queen, and that if the law passed he might consider marrying his own son to avoid inheritance tax.
When the assent was announced, people rushed to congratulate the peer on Twitter.
"A great day for Norman Tebbit and his son. I wish them much happiness together," tweeted the blogger James Ward.
The same-sex marriage bill was passed by the lower house of the British parliament on Tuesday with support from British Prime Minister David Cameron. The bill split his Conservative party but was backed by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Cameron's Conservative party had twice voted against the bill because it was too "liberal" and ran counter to the religious beliefs of certain members.
During the two-hour debate over the bill on Tuesday, Conservative parliamentarian Sir Gerald Howarth said that it was "astonishing that a bill for which there is absolutely no mandate, against which a majority of Conservatives voted, has been bulldozed through both Houses."
"The title of this bill might be 'Marriage', but its fabric is about freedom and respect," said Culture Secretary Maria Miller, according to Reuters.
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The House of Lords, the UK's upper house, had offered amendments to the bill on Monday, including protections for transgender couples.
Civil partnerships have been available in the UK since 2005, which allowed for most of the legal benefits that marriage offers. But some contested that the term "civil partnerships" remained inferior to that of marriage.
The new law means that the Church of England will now be allowed to offer marriage services to same-sex couples, where they had previously been banned from doing so.
The first same-sex marriage ceremony in the UK could happen as early as next summer.
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