Thursday, July 28, 2005

Geneva Dispatch #2: Switzerland Approves Same-Sex Partnerships

In addition to the vote on Schengen/Dublin discussed previously, the Swiss also voted on June 5 to allow registered partnerships, providing same-sex couples with some of the rights of marriage. Fifty-eight percent of voters and nineteen of twenty-six cantons voted yes. I admit I was somewhat surprised by the support for this measure, given Switzerland’s longstanding social conservatism. (It was, after all, the last European country to give women the right to vote in nationwide elections, in 1971. The last Swiss canton to allow women to vote in cantonal elections did not do so until 1990.) Since registered partnership laws already exist in several cantons, however, perhaps extending federal legal recognition was not viewed as particularly controversial. In addition, the new law maintains a distinction between registered partnerships and marriage, perhaps making it more acceptable. The decision grants gay couples who register their partnership the same financial rights and obligations as married couples. A registered partnership does not, however, provide the right to carry the same family name, adopt children, or undergo fertility treatments. In addition, a foreign member of a registered partnership will not have the right to a Swiss passport or to expedited naturalization. The new law will come into effect on January 1, 2007.

In this, Switzerland joins a growing number of European countries, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, France, and Germany, which provide some form of registered partnership for same-sex couples. The UK also recently enacted a registered partnership act that will come into force in December. In addition, three European countries -- the Netherlands, Belgium, and most recently Spain, which did so in early July -- have legalized same-sex marriage with the same rights and obligations as heterosexual marriage. (Canada also enacted a federal same-sex marriage law in July, although it was already allowed as a matter of provincial law in most of Canada’s provinces.)

Compared to the high emotions in the debate on same-sex partnership and marriage in the US, the Swiss treatment of this issue, both in the run-up to the election and the vote itself, seemed remarkably tame. The Swiss government and most political parties supported the measure, except for two small religious parties and the right-wing SVP (although the SVP’s leader, Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, toed the government line and called on voters to back the law). The Roman Catholic Church opposed the proposal, but the Federation of Protestant Churches supported it. The campaign was not particularly heated. An analysis of the June 5 vote recently released by Bern-based GfS Polling Institute shows that voters considered the vote on Schengen/Dublin more important than the one on same-sex partnerships. That conservative Switzerland would feel and vote this way, and that Catholic Spain would enact same-sex marriage, underline for me just how far apart European and American views are on this question. One only needs to compare these events in Europe with the 2004 US election: then, all eleven states where the issue was on the ballot – both red and blue – enacted by large majorities constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, eight of which also banned same-sex civil unions. (Similar measures previously existed in six states, plus the Defense of Marriage Act at the federal level.) This seems to me to be yet another instance where Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.

--Elizabeth Kandravy Cassidy

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