Romania Gay Marriage Case Could Have Outsize Impact in Europe

Bucharest, Romania — The European Union’s highest court began examining a case on Tuesday over a Romanian man’s attempts to get legal residency for his American husband, a closely watched hearing that will have major implications for the legal recognition of same-sex relationships across Europe.

The case, legal experts say, could determine whether same-sex partners are afforded some of the same benefits and rights available to heterosexual spouses across the 28-member bloc, irrespective of the countries’ stance on same-sex marriage. Specifically, it would affect whether they would be allowed to live and work freely across the European Union, one of the region’s fundamental principles.

“This is the first time the European Court of Justice has been asked to decide whether ‘spouse’ includes a same-sex spouse,” said Robert Wintemute, a professor of human rights law at King’s College London.

The case before the court involves Adrian Coman, a Romanian rights activist, and his American partner, Claibourn Robert Hamilton. The couple were married in Belgium in 2010, seven years after the country legalized same-sex marriage. Belgium is one of 13 countries in the European Union to allow same-sex marriage, while a further nine member states have civil unions or something similar, according to Mr. Wintemute.

European Union laws give the citizens of the bloc’s member states and their family members the right to move and freely reside across the region, subject to certain conditions. But as the couple looked to move to Romania, the authorities in Bucharest refused to recognize their relationship for the purposes of residency.

Romania prohibits marriage between people of the same sex, and does not recognize same-sex marriages carried out abroad. It is one of six European Union countries with no legal recognition for same-sex relationships.

In 2013, Mr. Coman and Mr. Hamilton challenged the country’s refusal to recognize Mr. Hamilton’s right to a residency permit as a spouse. The case bounced around domestic courts before the country’s Constitutional Court referred it to the European Court of Justice in November 2016.

The couple now live in the United States, but if the court rules in their favor, the impact could be considerable, and not just for them. It would effectively force Romania and five other countries — as well as any country that joins the European Union in the future — to grant same-sex couples who have been married elsewhere residency and working rights, as long as one of them is an E.U. citizen.

“I grew up here, and I still refer to Romania as my home country,” Mr. Coman said in an interview late last year, as the case was progressing through Romania’s legal system. “Sooner or later, I’ll be back.”

Reached by phone on Tuesday, shortly after the hearing had finished, he expressed optimism about the eventual verdict, which won’t be known for several months, but added that the process had taken far too long.

“Starting this litigation, we realized that we had to take it to the end, whatever the end was,” Mr. Coman said.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Romania in 2001. But same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue in the country, with its majority Orthodox Christian population.

In early 2016, three million Romanians out of a population of roughly 20 million signed a petition calling for the constitutional definition of marriage to be altered, from a union between two spouses to one specifically between a man and a woman. In July 2016, the country’s Constitutional Court accepted the validity of the proposal, paving the way for a referendum on the topic, which could be held next year.

The case at the European Court of Justice, then, comes at an important moment for Romania’s gay community.

“People see it as a beacon of hope after 16 years in which no progress has been made in Romania concerning equal rights, in terms of legislation,” said Vlad Viski, the president of MozaiQ, a Romanian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group.

“A positive decision in the Coman case would also send a symbolic signal to society that L.G.B.T. people must be treated as citizens, that ought to be respected by the state, by institutions, by fellow citizens.”

by Kit Gillet
Source – The New York Times