Germany’s top court handed down a ruling today giving same-sex civil unions the same tax exemptions as heterosexual marriages. The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe said that treating civil unions differently amounts to “unequal treatment because of sexual orientation” and violates the country’s guarantee of equal rights.
“Through a ruling like this the meaning of marriage for the family and for society is being forced further into the background,” Norbert Geis, a conservative lawmaker, told the Wall Street Journal, adding that the constitutional privilege awarded married couples “is under attack and is being cast in doubt.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right government has insisted on protecting special tax benefits for married couples because they usually have children. Her governing coalition resisted calls to grant civil unions the same rights as married couples despite an earlier ruling that indicated the judges would most likely rule against the government in this case.
The decision today acknowledged that married couples enjoy special privileges because the spouses accept strong financial responsibility for each other, but argued civil unions imply the same responsibilities. They also said policies in favor of families cannot be promoted by discriminating against civil unions.
Failure to be vigilant in guaranteeing equality “leads to discrimination against a minority,” the court said. The judges ordered the government to retroactively amend the relevant laws dating back to 2001, when the then-center-left government first introduced civil union status.
Though Germany has not legalized gay marriages, legal civil unions in Germany are officially certified by a notary and carry similar rights and privileges to marriage.
Married couples in Germany are able to jointly declare their taxable incomes, which can significantly lower their overall tax burden, especially when one partner has higher pay. The ruling gives civil unions that ability. The rule costs the government annually about 15.5 billion euros ($20 billion).
Associated Press reported that expansion of homosexual rights is relatively uncontroversial in Germany.
Lawmaker Thomas Oppermann of Germany’s main opposition party, the Social Democrats, praised the decision and took a swipe at Merkel, saying, “She still does not want to realize that the time has long come for fully equal treatment of civil unions and marriage.”
“This decision was widely expected but I still don’t think it’s right,” Geis told Reuters. “The sanctity of marriage is undermined.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report