The so-called civil partnerships are brought about by signing an official document, but there is no exchange of vows or promises as in a marriage ceremony, the Telegraph newspaper explained Tuesday. Like marriages, the unions can only be dissolved by a court.
The new rules apply to same-sex couples aged 16 or over in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
For same-sex couples the main advantages of the new law are financial, noted the Telegraph. If one of the partners dies before the other, the survivor is treated like a spouse if there is no will. The survivor will also inherit property and acquire pension rights as if he or she had been married.
The new rules drew criticism from Archbishop Peter Smith, chairman of the Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship of the Catholic Bishops\' Conference of England and Wales. In a statement issued Tuesday he warned: \"There is a real danger that the deeply rooted understanding of marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between a woman and a man, and as the best context for raising children, will be eroded.\"
Archbishop Smith called on the government to promote marriage, instead of undermining it. \"Its value to society should be promoted and never diminished,\" he added.
Britain wasn\'t alone this year in giving the go-ahead to same-sex couples. In a June referendum, Swiss voters approved a law allowing homosexual couples to register their partnerships.
The partnerships will be granted the same legal rights as married couples in the areas of pensions, inheritance and taxes, according to a June 5 report by the agency Swissinfo. Same-sex partners will not, however, be allowed to adopt children or have access to fertility treatment. The referendum was approved by 58% of voters. Previously registered partnerships for same-sex couples existed at a regional level in the cantons of Zurich, Geneva and Neuchâtel.
South Africa is set to go even further, and establish full-fledged same-sex marriage, after a Dec. 1 decision by the Constitutional Court. The nation\'s highest court ruled it is unconstitutional to prevent homosexuals from marrying, the Associated Press reported the day of the decision.
The court gave Parliament a year to make the necessary legal changes. According to the Associated Press, South Africa recognized the rights of homosexuals in the new constitution adopted after apartheid ended in 1994. The government had opposed, however, attempts to extend the definition of marriage in court to include same-sex couples.
A Reuters report, also on Dec. 1, noted that in the last few years homosexual activists had already won a number of legal battles, including the right to adopt children and inherit from partners\' wills.
Back in Britain, criticisms of the government\'s move to give same-sex couples rights similar to those of marriages were not lacking. The same day the law came into force, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a retired president of the High Court\'s Family Division, condemned the \"downgrading\" of matrimony, the London-based Times reported Tuesday.
Described by the newspaper as \"one of Britain\'s most senior former judges,\" she spoke at a legal gathering in central London. The former judge noted, among other things, that the withdrawal of tax incentives for marriage meant that there was now no financial reason to marry, or to remain married.
\"It is a sad fact that a government which has published excellent proposals on helping parents and children after breakdown of relationships, has done nothing practical to support married couples,\" she said.
The advantages of marriage were now \"not sufficiently trumpeted,\" said Butler-Sloss. And the growth in divorce is of concern to society, given its effects on the community and the economy, she added.
Some of these advantages were highlighted in a study by two economists. The Christian Science Monitor on Monday reported on the research by David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Andrew Oswald, from Warwick University in Coventry, England. The two looked at what makes people happy.
Their study was published in a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Massachusetts-based private research organization. The study found that it would be a mistake for governments to focus just on economic production as a measure of welfare. \"Money buys some degree of happiness, but not a lot,\" said Blanchflower.
A far bigger contributor to happiness is marriage. A spouse provides as much extra happiness as $100,000 in new income, reckoned Blanchflower.
Moreover, they discovered that those in a monogamous, faithful marriage are the happiest. Those who cheat on their spouses are less happy. Those who have ever paid for sex are much less happy than others. And so are those who divorce.
Lone parent trap
An opinion article in Wednesday\'s edition of the Telegraph continued the theme of economic discrimination against married couples. Jill Kirby, who chairs the Family Policy Group at the Center for Policy Studies, wrote that a study published by the center earlier this year showed that a one-breadwinner couple living on the average male wage pay 5,000 pounds ($8,600) more in tax every year than they receive in tax credits and benefits.
Yet if the couple split up, they can be net recipients of credits and benefits of up to 7,000 pounds ($12,100) a year. An unemployed couple living apart, or in an unofficial relationship, will also receive a substantial sum in welfare payments, not available if they marry.
What Kirby termed the \"lone parent trap,\" which ensures that a mother alone receives higher welfare payments than if she gets married, has long been a feature of the British welfare system. The trap, however, has been made deeper by changes to the tax system made by the current government, Kirby stated.
The proportion of children living with only one parent has grown by nearly a quarter since the Labor government came to power, noted Kirby. The figure now stands at 27% of all children in Britain, far in excess of the average in European Union countries.
She noted that in France, for example, the proportion of lone parents is less than half that of Britain, and the subsidies available on marital breakup and lone motherhood are much lower.
A safety net is needed for the victims of family breakdown, Kirby stated, but there is also a need for tax incentives to encourage marriage. \"A welfare system that penalizes married couples, alongside a tax system that ignores them,\" she warned, \"is a lethal combination.\"
The need to support families and marriage was recently on the mind of Benedict XVI. The Pope addressed the theme, among other matters, during a speech last Saturday to participants of a conference of presidents of Latin American bishops\' commissions for the family and for life.
He thanked those present for their efforts to safeguard the \"fundamental values of marriage and the family.\" These institutions, the Pontiff noted, are threatened today both by the phenomenon of secularization and by unjust laws.
The institution of marriage and the family is a model of irreplaceable value for the common good of humanity, insisted Benedict XVI. The Pope criticized attempts to promote \"new forms of marriage\" that are foreign to the cultures of the societies where they are being promoted. The full price of these \"new forms of marriages\" remains to be seen.