In 2001, Germany introduced civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, a legal construct in Germany that falls just short of same-sex marriage. The law was supposed to give people in civil unions the same rights as those in heterosexual marriages. Now, 11 years later, the government is finally moving to enshrine that equality in German law.
According to a report in the Wednesday edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, the German Justice Ministry has drafted a law that foresees changing the wording of many laws that refer to marriage so that they expressly include civil unions as well. In practice, it means changing references to "spouse" in the text of the laws to "spouse or life partner." The legislation involved relates to areas as diverse as infectious diseases, tenants' rights and child benefits. According to the German news agency DPA, around 40 laws are affected. A spokesman for the Family Ministry confirmed the Süddeutsche report on Wednesday.
The Justice Ministry has now sent its draft law to the other ministries for consultation. If there are no objections, the draft will be presented to the cabinet before being put to the vote in parliament. In a letter to the other ministries quoted by the Süddeutsche, the Justice Ministry insisted the "editorial changes" were intended to "standardize" laws and were of "little practical importance." The newspaper interpreted that wording as an attempt to play down the significance of the initiative to minimize possible opposition from other ministries.
The changes mean that partners in a civil union will expressly be put on the same footing before the law as spouses in a traditional marriage. Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, has repeatedly ruled that civil unions should be treated the same as heterosexual marriages.
The long delay in changing the wording of the laws is related to the fact that the original 2001 civil union legislation was highly controversial at the time. The then coalition government of the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens pushed through the law against the opposition of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party -- the three parties that now form the current government.
Although it originally opposed the 2001 law, the FDP, which controls the Justice Ministry, now backs equal rights for gay couples, not least because the party's former leader, current German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, is openly gay and married to his partner Michael Mronz.
'They Live According to Conservative Values'
The issue of civil unions, which are colloquially referred to in Germany as "gay marriages," has been in the headlines recently because of an initiative by a group of CDU lawmakers to grant couples in a civil union the same joint-filing tax benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. German Family Minister Kristina Schröder, a member of the CDU, spoke out in support of civil unions, saying that "in lesbian and gay life partnerships, people take lasting responsibility for one another and thus they live according to conservative values."
The Justice Ministry's initiative is, however, likely to meet with resistance from the ministries which are controlled by the CDU and CSU. Although the two parties have not sought to repeal the civil unions legislation, both are known for their "traditional family values" message and for seeking to preserve a special status for heterosexual marriage.
On Tuesday, CDU politician Katherina Reiche, a senior official in the Environment Ministry, called on her party to stand by the institutions of marriage and family. "Our future lies in the hands of the family, not in same-sex civil unions," she told the mass circulation newspaper Bild. Marriage between a man and a woman should not be "fundamentally called into question as a lifestyle," she said. "The conservatives have to say clearly that they stand for family, children and marriage."
For some, however, the Justice Ministry proposal does not go far enough. Senior Green Party politician Volker Beck, who is gay, said that the government "could not call it equal treatment" as long as there were areas where gay and lesbian couples did not enjoy the same rights, such as adoption and tax benefits.