British Jewish couple making legal history

British Jewish couple making legal history

For the Times of Israel posted March 7 2017

LONDON — Seven years ago, Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld met at a lecture at the London School of Economics. “Actually, it was about Gaza,” they smile.

Today, the two are making English legal history as they seek to change the law on civil partnership. They argue that the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 is discriminatory because only same-sex couples are eligible, and they want the law to be extended to heterosexual couples, too.

Keidan, 40, and Steinfeld, 35, are unlikely heroes for a social revolution in Britain, but effectively that is what they have become. Their campaign, financed by crowd-funding together with £7,000 ($8,500) of their own savings, has been through a variety of legal hurdles and at the end of last month just narrowly failed to get the necessary endorsement of all three judges in a High Court Appeal.

Now the next step could be the Supreme Court or — as they hope — an amendment to the Civil Partnership Act in the next Queen’s Speech, the vehicle through which the government of the day announces its future plans. The amendment, as Steinfeld puts it, would be “the removal of six little words — the requirement that those eligible for civil partners ‘must be of the same sex.’”

Inside the couple’s comfortable home in Hammersmith, West London, there is little sign of the very public property their lives have become since they announced that traditional marriage was not for them. Instead, in a light, bright room there are children’s books and toys, including a giant tepee belonging to Eden, their 20-month-old daughter. Keidan, a former director of the Pears Foundation, a Jewish charity which supports a slew of mainly left-of-centre good causes, cheerfully admits that there are times he would have liked to creep into the tepee himself.

“When we first started talking about formalising our relationship and committing to each other, building a family,” says Keidan, “we thought about what would be right for us. We saw ourselves as partners in everything we do, and we felt that a civil partnership would best reflect our values. At that point, in 2013, we became engaged — we still are — and we still hope to be able to enter into a civil partnership.”

Accordingly, in December 2013 the pair persuaded Britain’s oldest and perhaps most traditional Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, to accept a classified announcement recording their intention. “It was the first time they’d ever done this,” says Steinfeld, “and we thought that civil partnership was on the horizon.”

And in October 2014 the couple gave notice to Chelsea Register Office that they wished to enter a civil partnership. They were immediately told that such a provision did not exist for heterosexual couples — and so their legal battle began.

Ironically, of course, the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 was originally designed to help the thousands of gay and lesbian couples who had no legal or financial protection if their relationship foundered or if one of the couple died. In 2013 the government introduced the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, after a lengthy campaign by gay and lesbian activists to be afforded the same privileges as their heterosexual counterparts.

Keidan and Steinfeld argued that the law was now effectively discriminating against heterosexual couples — same-sex partners could choose civil partnership or marriage, while heterosexual pairings were only able to be married or cohabit.

There are thought to be just over three million cohabiting couples in the UK, a massive increase over the last 20 years. A common misconception is that “cohabiting” and “common-law marriage” offers legal and financial protection. But it doesn’t, as all too many abandoned partners have found to their expense. Every newspaper is awash with stories about a “common-law wife” — it is usually a woman — whose partner has departed or died, and who cannot claim anything from his will or pension.

Steinfeld, a political scientist who researches on gender issues, has the figures at her fingertips. “Mixed-sex cohabitees are the fastest-growing family type in the UK, with two million dependents. Our argument is that social policy and law need to catch up with the development of modern families, and by opening civil partnerships to everyone we’d be able to provide protection to all those couples,” she says.

Keidan these days edits a specialist magazine which covers the world of philanthropy.

For Keidan and Steinfeld, there was never a possibility of “just getting married,” even in a registry office, because they are uncomfortable with some of the symbols of marriage, whether a Jewish ceremony or a civil one. They object, they say, to the “patriarchal baggage” of marriage.

“Still today in 2017,” Steinfeld says, “those entering civil marriages in England and Wales become man and wife, and when they sign the marriage register, there’s still only space for the fathers of the parties and not the mothers of the parties.
“And there are a whole host of social expectations to perform a marriage in a particular way. Of course, one could resist that, but in a civil partnership it’s a simple civil contract, a blank slate, with none of that baggage.”

There are things which can be done as the law presently stands to get around some of the disadvantages of cohabiting. For example, couples can make their wills in favour of each other, which Keidan and Steinfeld have already done.

But inheritance tax exemption only currently applies to married couples, and, as Steinfeld bitterly points out, “while grieving for your dead partner a cohabiting person will have to deal with all the financial details of inheritance tax, a bureaucratic nightmare. You cannot get around the fact that you are legally and financially vulnerable as a cohabitee, no matter what you do to try to protect yourself.”

Despite their rejection of the patriarchal aspects of marriage, the couple don’t have a problem with the rather traditional engagement or “betrothal.” Steinfeld says that they wanted to make a public announcement of their commitment to each other, while Keidan says, “This is not about cutting off our tradition and where we come from. We acknowledge our families and our community, for us it’s as much about looking to the past as to the future.”

Part of the way they want to conduct their future as a family is reflected in the name they have given their baby daughter. Not wanting to give her a patriarchal surname, they have instead “fused” their own surnames so that she is called Eden Keidstein.

Their basic position is that everyone should be treated equally under the law, something with which it is hard to argue. Nevertheless, although many leading gay and lesbian campaigners have supported Keidan and Steinfeld, some have expressed resentment that a heterosexual couple appear to have leaped on the civil partnership bandwagon which it took gay partners so long to achieve.

Steinfeld acknowledges this. “We’re not claiming that the unfairness in the access to civil partnership is anything like the abhorrent, systematic, institutional violence, discrimination, and prejudice that has been enacted against gay people throughout the world today,” she says.

But the veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who accompanied Keidan and Steinfeld to the Court of Appeal late last month, is a fervent supporter. Speaking after two out of three of the Appeal Court judges narrowly dismissed Keidan and Steinfeld’s case, Tatchell told reporters: “Although two of the three judges ruled that mixed-sex couples are not entitled to a civil partnership, all three conceded that the current ban cannot be maintained indefinitely — a tacit admission that civil partnership discrimination is wrong. They decided to give the government more time to resolve what Lord Justice Briggs called ‘the current impasse.’”

“It cannot be right that lesbian and gay couples have two options, civil partnership and civil marriage, whereas opposite-sex partners have only one option, marriage. This legal case was always about the simple quest to end discrimination and ensure equality for all. I am delighted that Charles and Rebecca will appeal this judgment to the Supreme Court and hope that justice will prevail in the end,” Tatchell added.

Keidan says that they have support across the board for their campaign. “More than 76,000 people have signed a petition to the government and we have backing across the political spectrum, from Labour to the Conservatives,” he says.

The next stage, says Steinfeld, “is that we hope the government sees the writing is on the wall and that the status quo can’t be sustained indefinitely, and that they will act to open civil partnerships for all. If they don’t — and we can’t rely on that — we have applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.”

For Steinfeld, particularly, the couple’s Jewish background is pivotal in their determination to step up to the plate and try to change social policy.

“I come from a family where education and debate was so highly valued, and literally everything was open for discussion over the Shabbat dinner table,” she says. “Having family members who survived the Holocaust, and thinking about injustice, and vulnerability of minorities, and the importance of not just sitting back when you see something that you think is really wrong, that’s what galvanised me. And we are both from families full of lawyers, so maybe that’s an influence, too.”

The pair are resolutely upbeat about their chances of success, but there have been some hurdles along the way. A few years ago, Keidan explains, his grandmother died and his family agreed that the gravestone would include the words “Mourned by her grandchildren, their wives and partners.”

“But,” says Keidan, “the dayanim [rabbinical judges] of the United Synagogue wouldn’t allow the word ‘partner’ on the stone, and though we were told that we would get an explanation as to why, they never told us. That hurt. We think it was because they thought ‘partner’ meant Rebecca was a man, and they don’t allow gay relationships on the gravestones. It wasn’t so much that it wasn’t acceptable that felt wrong, it was because they wouldn’t explain to us why it wasn’t acceptable.”

Incidentally, the couple is not anti-marriage, says Keidan. “Rebecca’s sister got married last year, and we are going to several weddings this year. Just, for us, civil partnership is a better fit. The latest ruling, though we didn’t win, acknowledges our situation. All three judges said the status quo cannot continue. We are confident that this change will happen,” he says.

The indications are that Keidan and Steinfeld are likely to win this battle, but it doesn’t mean that they will step back from social campaigning, having got the taste — and the skills — for it. On their bucket list are reproductive rights, getting more men involved in nursery and child care, and “efforts around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” as Keidan says he is “concerned about the direction of travel” of the Israeli political scene.

But having “got into this almost by accident,” Keidan and Steinfeld are now focusing all their attention on obtaining civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples. Thousands of others in their situation, they believe, will be grateful if they succeed.

  • 7 March, 2017