A heterosexual couple in Austria has vowed to go to the country's highest court - to be granted a civil partnership introduced for gay couples. They argue that current legislation is discriminatory.
A heterosexual couple in Austria is fighting for the right to enter into a registered civil partnership - introduced for homosexual couples in January 2010. Under current law the couple will be denied that right - but they have vowed to take the case to the country's constitutional court to overturn what they says is a discriminatory legislation.
Austria introduced civil unions for gay couples on January 1, affording them some of the rights enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. The new legislation, passed after weeks of wrangling between the ruling Social Democrats and their conservative coalition partner in government, gives same-sex couples a status similar to traditional marriage but different in a number of respects. For instance, there are less strict rules in the event of a divorce.
The heterosexual couple in question argues that this is a more modern form of union - which simply suits them better than a traditional marriage. And if it's offered to gay couples, why shouldn't it be an option for them as well? The issue at stake, they argue, is standing up against discrimination.
"Everyone should have the same rights, and there shouldn't be different rules for different people," the couple's lawyer, Helmut Graupner, told Deutsche Welle.
"Regardless of how many different forms of union a state provides to couples, all of those forms should be available for everyone and must not be restricted on the basis of race, class or sex or gender or other criteria, which are traditionally the very criteria for discrimination," Graupner said.
Can you be 'a little bit equal'?
At the end of February, the couple plans to officially apply for a civil partnership - they expect this to be rejected, in which case they plan to take their case to the constitutional court. Their goal is to force the government to rework the legislation so that both traditional marriage and registered partnership will be open to any couple - gay or straight.
"The issue is equality - nothing but equality," Graupner said. "You can not be 'a little bit equal.' Just like you can't be 'a little bit pregnant' or 'a little bit dead.' Unless you're entitled to the same kind of institutions and forms of law you're not being treated equally and that's discriminatory. That's what we are fighting against - we're fighting for the rights of both heterosexuals and homosexuals."
Graupner is not only trying to help the heterosexual couple to get a 'gay' marriage. He's also representing gay couples who want a traditional marriage - rather than the registered civil partnership that lawmakers have agreed on. The current legislation provides same-sex couples with equal rights to heterosexuals with regards to pensions and alimony - but the law for instance continues to ban adoption. It also does not allow civil partnership ceremonies at the civil registry office, where heterosexual couples can marry.
Yet Graupner is up against strong resistance. The country's conservative party - the Austrian Peoples Party - only reluctantly agreed to the civil partnership in the first place. The conservatives insists that significant differences between the two forms of union must remain.
The Catholic Church is not amused
Another powerful opponent to the law is the Roman Catholic Church - after all, Austria is predominantly Catholic and the Church is a force to be reckoned with. The country's clergy is opposed to the existing law, and certainly against any further liberalization.
"The Austrian bishops have made their position quite clear," Professor Erich Leitenberger, spokesman for the Vienna diocese told Deutsche Welle. "They strongly support the fact that the law does not put the civil partnership and a traditional marriage on an equal footing."
"But the bishops have expressed concerns that the new law could be the beginning of a trend which eventually will lead to putting the civil partnership on the same footing as the traditional marriage between a man and a woman."
Leitenberger said that the legislation in place before January 1 was sufficient to safeguard the rights of gay and lesbian couples. Families, he argued, were shouldering the task of raising children and therefore could not be put on the same level with same-sex couples.
"The bishops stick to their position that a traditional marriage, a family raising children simply is something different from a homosexual couple - and therefore should also be treated differently."
However, should the appeal to the constitutional court be successful, soon both of the two forms of union, could be open to any couple - a situation that would place Austria at the forefront in terms of homosexual rights in Europe. The decision by the court is expected by the end of this year.
Author: Andreas Illmer
Editor: Chuck Penfold
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