Restricted gay marriages stir few European emotions

February 27, 2004

PARIS — Gay marriage, likely to become a hot issue in this year's US presidential election, stirs little emotion in Europe although few countries have accepted it.

Even The Netherlands, the first state to legalise homosexual civil marriage on April 1, 2001 and Belgium which quickly followed suit, still restrict the ability of gays to adopt children and limit lesbian access to assisted pregnancy.

In the United States, gay marriage is hugely divisive, and on Tuesday President George W. Bush publicly endorsed a proposal to amend the US Constitution so as to outlaw it, indicating that he had chosen to make it electoral battleground in the run-up to polling day in November.

But, in an apparent attempt to hold on to some liberal votes, Bush said individual states should be "free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage." Such arrangements have become common in Europe, especially in the northern countries which so often lead the way to social reform.

As early as 1985, Denmark made it possible for gays to register their partnerships by signing a civil contract in front of a town hall official.

Sweden introduced a similar system in 1995 and shortly afterwards allowed gays to apply to adopt children. Several other European states have followed suit, without going so far as to permit gay marriage as such. Only Belgium extends the right of marriage to foreign gays, on condition that they have a Belgian partner and reside im Belgium.

French gays been able to declare a civil solidarity pact with each other since 1999, a step which gives them essentially the same social and tax benefits as married heterosexuals.

Germany introduced its version of the pact two years later, and the British government published proposals to do so in June last year, although details remain controversial.

Portugal, too, has for three years granted the same status to people living as couples, whether gays or heterosexual, but other countries in southern Europe have so far been reluctant to do so.

In Italy, the Roman Catholic Church has officially asked politicians who profess the Christian faith to oppose any attempt to legalise gay unions, while in Greece -- where heterosexuals have had a civil alternative to a church wedding only since 1982 -- gay marriage is taboo.

Neither Austria nor Ireland – both predominantly Roman Catholic nations – has passed any kind of law to favour gay partnerships.

Among the eight central and eastern European states due to join the EU on May 1, only Hungary and Croatia have given gay couples any legal status.

Gay couples can register as such in only three of the 26 cantons in Switzerland, but the right will be extended nationwide if a proposed federal law is adopted in May.

Spain has similarly devolved much authority to its provinces, and the status of gays varies widely from one part of the country to another. The governing conservative Popular Party has blocked all attempts to introduce national legislation on the subject. – Sapa-AFP

Related stories
Euro Parliament supports gay marriage [05/09/2003]
Massachusetts: civil unions vs. marriage [26/02/2004]



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