Germany's top court ruled Thursday that civil partnerships, including those of same-sex couples, should have joint tax filing benefits equal to those of married opposite-sex couples.
The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that the unequal treatment of marriages and civil partnerships regarding taxes was unconstitutional, and demanded that the law be changed retroactively to August 1, 2001, the date that Germany legalized civil unions. Until new regulations exist, the current provisions for joint filings of married couples can be applied to civil partnerships, according to the decision.
The move had significant political support. All parties in the parliament, with the exception of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had recently called for such equal treatment.
While same-sex partners in Germany have been able to enter legal civil partnerships since 2001, it has been without all of the tax and adoption privileges available to married heterosexual couples. But since the high court judges in Karlsruhe strengthened adoption rights for some same-sex couples in February, the debate about gay and lesbian rights has been heated, and the decision to grant additional tax benefits was widely expected.
Criticism of Merkel
Patrick Döring, the general secretary of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), the junior coalition partner party to the CDU and CSU, said in Berlin Thursday: "It is a tragedy that the CDU and CSU were not ready on their own for a change to the law."
Germany's Lesbian and Gay Association welcomed the court's decision, but also criticized Merkel's party. "Karlsruhe again had to tutor the federal government on constitutional law," a spokesman said in a statement. "The principle of equal treatment applies to all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation. The CDU/CSU-led government has so far denied this doctrine with all their resources."
Despite infighting on the issue in her party, Merkel had supported the official CDU position of opposing the joint tax filing benefits. The court decision has now provided her opponents an opportunity to criticize her position on gay rights in an election year.
Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary leader for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), said Merkel's coalition was being pushed by the federal court. "The coalition discriminates against life partners -- people who support each other and assume responsibility for each other -- solely because they are the same gender."
Renate Künast, chairwoman of the environmentalist Greens' parliamentary group, called the decision a "slap in the face with a message" for the "dusty" view of society held by Merkel's government.
Some of Merkel's prominent cabinet members also voiced their support for the decision Thursday. The FDP's Philip Rösler, who is vice chancellor and economy minister, tweeted that the ruling sent a "strong signal for more tolerance."
Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, also from the FDP, said the decision marked a "breakthrough" in winning full equal treatment of civil partnerships and marriage.
Prompted to Act
Legislation backing the court ruling might be passed in the coming weeks, a CDU member of parliament told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I expect that we will implement the ruling before the summer break," said Jan-Marco Luczak, a CDU representative from Berlin.
The issue of equal tax benefits for gay and lesbian couples has been ongoing in Germany. The Federal Constitutional Court gave the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, a deadline of June 18 for passing a law that would give same-sex couples in civil partnerships the same property transfer tax benefits as married couples. The court ruled last July that unequal treatment on such benefits was unconstitutional.