U.S. state governments should extend civil marriage to same-sex partners to ensure the equality of gay and lesbian people, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution will hold hearings on the issue today.
Human Rights Watch called on governments, including the United States, to follow a growing international trend of giving legal recognition to gay and lesbian relationships.
The Netherlands and Belgium give gay and lesbian couples the right to full civil marriage. Numerous other counties recognize same-sex partnerships in law, including Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden. Countries that extend some benefits to same-sex partners, or contain jurisdictions that do so, include: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and Spain.
“On almost every continent, governments are moving to stop discrimination against same-sex relationships,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Yet in the United States, some legislators are trying to etch this prejudice in stone.”
Lack of access to marriage rights imposes discriminatory, and often damaging, burdens on same-sex partners, the Human Rights Watch briefing paper said. They may be denied shared health or employment benefits; protections against domestic violence; inheritance rights; the right to raise a child together; the right to make medical decisions for a sick partner or a partner’s child; and rights to equal tax benefits and joint insurance policies.
“International human rights law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation,” said Roth. “Just as the law must ensure that men and women are equal in marriage, so the law must ensure that everyone has equal access to marriage.”
Human Rights Watch considers “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” inadequate alternatives to legally recognizing same-sex marriage rights.
“Separate is never equal,” said Roth. “Civil unions are a step in the right direction. But they almost always offer less than the full roster of rights that marriage entails – and they still stigmatize same-sex relationships as deserving only second-class recognition.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that criminal penalties for consensual homosexual conduct violate the constitutional right to privacy. Although that decision did not address marriage rights, on May 21, 2003, U.S. Representative Marilyn Musgrave and five co-sponsors introduced a House of Representatives resolution to amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as consisting “only of the union of a man and a woman.” A hearing on the proposed amendment will be held on September 4 in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution.
Meanwhile, in recent months, courts in Canada have ordered the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia to open marriage to gays and lesbians. Debate on federal legislation that would extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians is expected in Canada within months.