July 11, 2007

Same-Sex Marriage: Redefining Legal Unions Around the World

by Hope Lozano-Bielat, Research Assistant, and David Masci, Senior Research Fellow

In many countries around the globe, gay and lesbian couples are seeking the right to marry or enter into other legally recognized forms of domestic partnerships. The legal definition of marriage is in flux, particularly in the developed world, as governments re-examine what long seemed to be a well-established aspect of civil law.

Public Opinion

A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that while a majority of Americans (55%) oppose same-sex marriage, a sizable minority (37%) favor it, figures that have varied only slightly since 2001. A 2006 Pew survey also found that a majority of Americans (54%) favor allowing civil unions, up from 45% in 2003.

FigureSource: Pew Research Center, Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007, March 22, 2007
FigureSource: Pew Research Center, Pragmatic Americans Liberal and Conservative on Social Issues, August 3, 2006

A study released by the European Commission in 2006 found that a plurality of people in the European Union (49%) oppose gay marriage. Yet, as in the United States, the public remains divided, with 44% favoring same-sex marriage. Approval rates in individual countries vary greatly. In socially progressive Holland, for instance, 82% of all adults favor allowing same-sex marriage; in heavily Roman Catholic Poland, only 17% of adults support gay marriage.

<span >“Homosexual marriage should be allowed throughout Europe…”Percent “Agree”Figure

Source: European Commission, Eurobarometer 66, Public Opinion in the European Union, December 2006

While public debate in many countries centers on the legal recognition of same-sex unions, in other parts of the world, the question is the acceptability of homosexuality itself. A 2002 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that strong majorities of the people polled in the African and Middle Eastern countries surveyed do not view homosexuality as a socially acceptable way of life. A 2006 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life similarly found that in the African and Asian nations surveyed, such as Nigeria and South Korea, at least half of the public polled believe homosexuality can never be justified.

Same-Sex Marriage Over Time

The extension of legal rights to same-sex couples began in 1989 when Denmark created “registered partnerships” that extended property and inheritance rights to same-sex couples. This marked the first time a national government guaranteed gay and lesbian households not only protection from harassment but also some of the legal rights long held by heterosexual married couples. Norway took similar action in 1993, followed by Sweden in 1995 and Iceland in 1996; other European countries followed suit in subsequent years. Other nations in Europe, South America, Australia and elsewhere expanded the rights of same-sex couples by permitting legal statuses that granted the couples some legal rights without using the term “marriage,” such as civil unions, civil partnerships or domestic partnerships.

The Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. In December 2000, the Dutch parliament passed legislation that gave same-sex couples the right to marry, divorce and adopt children. On April 1, 2001, the mayor of Amsterdam officiated at the ceremonies of the first four gay couples to be married. In the ensuing six years, Belgium (2003), Spain (2005), Canada (2005) and South Africa (2006) have followed the Netherlands’ lead and legalized same-sex marriage.

In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. The statute also declared that states were not required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first, and so far only, state to allow same-sex marriages, and only for in-state residents. Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont recognize civil unions, and New Hampshire will do so beginning in 2008. Court decisions on the constitutionality of denying same-sex marriage are expected this year in California, Connecticut and Maryland.

New legislation related to same-sex relations is introduced somewhere in the world almost every month. In November 2006, Mexico City became the first of Mexico’s regional governments to recognize same-sex civil unions. That same month, Israel, which has offered common law marriage to homosexuals since 1994, legally recognized same-sex marriages performed in other countries as full marriages in Israel. In Uruguay, the parliament is debating whether to allow civil unions for same-sex couples who have lived together for at least five years.

Undoubtedly, these and other debates have been influenced by the countries that have already given same-sex couples the right to marry. The following is a short summary of the history and politics of – and public reaction toward – same-sex marriage in the five nations that currently allow the practice.

The Netherlands

The Dutch parliament passed its landmark bill legalizing same-sex marriage in 2000 by roughly a three-to-one margin. The legislation altered a single sentence in the civil marriage statute, which now reads, “A marriage can be contracted by two people of different or the same sex.”

The only opposition in parliament came from the Christian Democratic Party, which at the time was not part of the governing coalition. After the law went into effect, the Protestant Church of the Netherlands, representing about 12% of the country’s population, announced that individual congregations could decide whether to conduct same-sex ceremonies. Although Muslim and conservative Christian groups continue to oppose the legislation, as well as the practice of homosexuality itself, same-sex marriage is widely accepted by the Dutch public and, to many, is a nonissue.

About 2,400 same-sex couples married in the Netherlands within nine months of the marriage law going into effect, according to government figures. Since then, the number of same-sex marriages has declined annually from 1,800 in 2002 to 1,100 in 2005.

Belgium

Beginning in 1998, the Belgian parliament offered limited rights to same-sex couples by creating registered partnerships. Same-sex couples could register with a city clerk and formally assume joint responsibility for a household. Five years later, in January 2003, parliament legalized same-sex marriage, giving gay and lesbian couples the same tax and inheritance rights as heterosexual couples.

Support for the law came from both the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south, and it generated surprisingly little controversy across the country. The long-dominant Christian Democratic Party, traditionally allied with the Roman Catholic Church, was out of power when parliament passed the measure.The original law only recognized the marriages of Belgian same-sex couples and couples from other countries where same-sex marriage was legal. Those provisions were broadened in 2004, however, to recognize any same-sex marriage as long as one member of the couple had lived in Belgium for at least three months. In 2006, parliament also granted same-sex partners the right to adopt children.

Almost 2,500 same-sex couples had married in Belgium as of July 2005.

Spain

A closely divided parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, guaranteeing identical rights to all married couples regardless of sexual orientation. The new measure added brief, relatively simple language to the existing marriage statute: “Marriage will have the same requirements and results when the two people entering into the contract are of the same sex or of different sexes.”

Vatican officials as well as the Spanish Bishops Conference strongly criticized the law, and large, competing crowds demonstrated in Madrid for and against the measure. After the law went into effect, the country’s constitutional court rejected challenges from two municipal court judges who had refused marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The high court ruled that the lower court judges lacked legal standing to bring suit.

According to a survey by Instituto Opina, a private polling organization, one day before passage of the bill, approximately 62% of the public favored the legislation. Nine months later, a second poll showed 61% of the public supporting the measure.

About 1,000 same-sex couples had married in Spain as of March 2006. The first same-sex divorce was granted in June 2006.

Canada

Same-sex couples gained most of the legal benefits of marriage in 1999 when federal and provincial governments extended “common law” marriages to gay and lesbian couples. Through a series of court cases beginning in 2003, same-sex marriage gradually became legal in nine of the country’s 13 provinces and territories. In 2005, Parliament passed legislation making same-sex marriage legal nationwide. In 2006 lawmakers defeated an effort by the ruling Conservative Party to reconsider the issue, leaving the law unchanged.

A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation survey conducted three months before Parliament acted in 2005 found that 52% of Canadians opposed the legislation. But one month after passage of the law, 55% favored keeping it on the books. That number stood at 58% in December 2006.

South Africa

The South African parliament legalized same-sex marriage in November 2006, one year after the country’s highest court ruled that the existing, more restrictive marriage laws violated the constitution’s guarantee of equal rights. The new measure passed by a margin of greater than five-to-one, with support coming from both the governing African National Congress as well as the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. The traditional monarch of the Zulu people, who account for about one-fifth of the country’s population, maintains that homosexuality is morally wrong.

The law allows for religious institutions and civil officers to refuse to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, a provision that critics claim violates the rights of same-sex couples under the constitution.

For more on issues at the nexus of religion and public life, visit pewforum.org