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Making Room for Same-Sex Couples

12/12/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Legal Acceptance Grows -- Along With Concerns

LONDON, DEC. 12, 2005 (Zenit) - Same-sex couples in Britain gained legal recognition last Monday under the Civil Partnership Act. Although not equated with marriage, the same-sex unions now have almost all the same legal rights as married couples.

The so-called civil partnerships are brought about by signing an official document, but there is no exchange of vows or promises as in a marriage ceremony, the Telegraph newspaper explained Tuesday. Like marriages, the unions can only be dissolved by a court.

The new rules apply to same-sex couples aged 16 or over in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

For same-sex couples the main advantages of the new law are financial, noted the Telegraph. If one of the partners dies before the other, the survivor is treated like a spouse if there is no will. The survivor will also inherit property and acquire pension rights as if he or she had been married.

The new rules drew criticism from Archbishop Peter Smith, chairman of the Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. In a statement issued Tuesday he warned: "There is a real danger that the deeply rooted understanding of marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between a woman and a man, and as the best context for raising children, will be eroded."

Archbishop Smith called on the government to promote marriage, instead of undermining it. "Its value to society should be promoted and never diminished," he added.

Swiss approval

Britain wasn't alone this year in giving the go-ahead to same-sex couples. In a June referendum, Swiss voters approved a law allowing homosexual couples to register their partnerships.

The partnerships will be granted the same legal rights as married couples in the areas of pensions, inheritance and taxes, according to a June 5 report by the agency Swissinfo. Same-sex partners will not, however, be allowed to adopt children or have access to fertility treatment. The referendum was approved by 58% of voters. Previously registered partnerships for same-sex couples existed at a regional level in the cantons of Zurich, Geneva and Neuchâtel.

South Africa is set to go even further, and establish full-fledged same-sex marriage, after a Dec. 1 decision by the Constitutional Court. The nation's highest court ruled it is unconstitutional to prevent homosexuals from marrying, the Associated Press reported the day of the decision.

The court gave Parliament a year to make the necessary legal changes. According to the Associated Press, South Africa recognized the rights of homosexuals in the new constitution adopted after apartheid ended in 1994. The government had opposed, however, attempts to extend the definition of marriage in court to include same-sex couples.

A Reuters report, also on Dec. 1, noted that in the last few years homosexual activists had already won a number of legal battles, including the right to adopt children and inherit from partners' wills.

Downgrading

Back in Britain, criticisms of the government's move to give same-sex couples rights similar to those of marriages were not lacking. The same day the law came into force, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a retired president of the High Court's Family Division, condemned the "downgrading" of matrimony, the London-based Times reported Tuesday.

Described by the newspaper as "one of Britain's most senior former judges," she spoke at a legal gathering in central London. The former judge noted, among other things, that the withdrawal of tax incentives for marriage meant that there was now no financial reason to marry, or to remain married.

"It is a sad fact that a government which has published excellent proposals on helping parents and children after breakdown of relationships, has done nothing practical to support married couples," she said.

The advantages of marriage were now "not sufficiently trumpeted," said Butler-Sloss. And the growth in divorce is of concern to society, given its effects on the community and the economy, she added.

Some of these advantages were highlighted in a study by two economists. The Christian Science Monitor on Monday reported on the research by David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Andrew Oswald, from Warwick University in Coventry, England. The two looked at what makes people happy.

Their study was published in a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Massachusetts-based private research organization. The study found that it would be a mistake for governments to focus just on economic production as a measure of welfare. "Money buys some degree of happiness, but not a lot," said Blanchflower.

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