A look at the state of same-sex partnerships under German law | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 27.05.2015
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A look at the state of same-sex partnerships under German law

In 2001, Germany introduced legal partnerships for same-sex couples. They now have nearly all of the same rights as married couples, but nearly 15 years later, the question remains: why is there still a difference?

The debate on gay marriage was reignited in Germany this week following Ireland's historic referendum, which saw over 60 percent of voters in the Catholic stronghold support marriage for same-sex couples.

As Jens Spahn - a leading politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) - told the German newspaper "Die Welt": "You would think what the Irish Catholics can do, we could do, too."

Heterosexual couples in Germany do not receive a special status as co-habitants and, thus, have only the option of marrying to be recognized as a family unit under the law.

By contrast, same-sex couples can only enter into a so-called "registered life-partnership," a legal civil union introduced in 2001, which shares many of the benefits and obligations of a legally recognized marriage. This right has been expanded over the past 14 years, including an extension of tax breaks in 2013 and the right to so-called successive adoption in 2014.

So, aside from the limitations to adoption rights, the major difference that remains is the use of the term "marriage" itself.

'All they have to do is vote'

It may appear to be a war of words from the outside, but both sides are saying that more is at stake than one single word, with supporters calling it a human rights issue and opponents underscoring their sacrosanct view of the protection of the family.

Despite numerous signs at the federal level of support for a change - including rulings by the country's top court, support from the upper house of parliament and calls from the country's anti-discrimination agency - the main hindrance to gay marriage in Germany appears to be Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, with the chancellor herself saying in 2013 that she "had a hard time" with the issue.

Berlin Generaldebatte im Bundestag Merkel und Gabriel

Critics have also pointed at Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel's SPD for not doing enough for gay rights as coalition partner

"There is a majority in the Bundestag for opening up marriage [to homosexual partners]. But then there's the [issue of] preserving peace within the coalition," the director of the Lesbian and Gay Assocation (LSVD), Klaus Jetz, told DW, refering to the CDU/CSU's partnership with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Unlike in Ireland, the German Constitution only allows for national referendums on two issues: the restructuring of federal territory or redrafting the Constitution. And unlike in the United States, German states do not have the power to decide individually on gay marriage. Thus, the decision would fall to a vote by the Bundestag's 631 parliamentarians, nearly 80 percent of whom belong to the governing coalition. And according to Jetz, the lawmakers are unlikely to vote against their own party, or coalition partner.

But Jetz argues that because gay marriage can be considered a human rights question "every representative, including from the CDU/CSU, could vote in its favor […] and wouldn't be forced to follow [the party's lead]."

Marriage 'won't be special' anymore

Whether one of Germany's opposition parties brings a bill to the floor in the near future wouldn't necessarily change the fate for gay marriage in this legislative period, given the current coalition agreement. In late 2013, the CDU/CSU and SPD specifically decided against resolving the issue of gay marriage for their five-year term.

CDU politician Thomas Strobl stressed exactly that point this week, emphasizing that the center-right faction needed to engage in its own internal debate on the matter and that he was of the opinion that the CDU should "stick to the [2013] agreement" with the SPD.

"It's clear that [Ireland's decision] will have an effect on our debates and discussions in Germany, rightly so," Strobl told Germany's southwestern public broadcaster SWR, adding: "It is a remarkable decision that was made in Ireland."

But he also said that just because Ireland did it and just because society and politics continue to develop, doesn't mean German needed to follow suit immediately: "If we make everything the same, then marriage won't be special anymore," Strobl said.

Polling data in the past has pointed to broad support in the German public. A Forsa Institute survey showed in 2013, for example, that 74 percent of respondents supported gay marriage, with 64 percent of CDU/CSU supporters surveyed also supporting an equal law.

Irland Referendum Homo-Ehe

The significance of traditionally Catholic Ireland supporting gay marriage has turned heads in Germany

Critics unimpressed with new Cabinet laws

The CDU politician further pointed to the Cabinet's approval of amendments to roughly 20 laws on Wednesday as a sign that the coalition was following the coalition agreement to end discriminatory practices.

However, these changes - also praised by German Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) as a "further step on the road to a comprehensive equality" - were met with criticism by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency.

"Gays and Lesbians mustn't have the feeling that they are second class citizens in Germany compared to other parts of Europe," the agency's spokeswoman, Christine Lüders, said, calling the amendments - which primarily involved adding the word "life partner" where the term "spouse" stood - a "gigantic disappointment."

'We don't get it'

With Ireland becoming the 20th nation in the world to approve gay marriage - in addition to certain districts in Mexico and in the United States - supporters in Germany now wonder if and when its own politicians will move forward.

The amendments made on Wednesday "are arbitrary [decisions] to make distinctions where there aren't any at all," Jetz told DW.

"Why do we have life partnerships for some people and marriage for others? We don't get it."

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