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Where gay unions are legal, what lessons?

The Netherlands has allowed same-sex marriages for 2-1/2 years. The change hasn't roiled the nation, but some issues are unresolved.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2003

A week before Christmas in 2001, Anne Kester and Bernadette Meerdink entered the city hall in Nymegen, Netherlands, for an event they had long hoped for. At 4 p.m., in the presence of more than 40 relatives and friends, the two women exchanged marriage vows and wedding rings.

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"Getting married means that things are legal, and you are protected by the law," says Ms. Kester. She and Ms. Meerdink had lived together for almost eight years before the ceremony.

The Netherlands lifted a ban on same-sex marriage in April 2001, a move that gives the country the longest track record in the world with an issue that is now roiling public debate in the United States. On Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts ruled that gay couples have a right, under the state constitution, to marry, and it told the legislature to change state law accordingly.

What the Dutch experience shows

More than two years after the Dutch parliament legalized gay marriage, what lessons does the move hold for other nations?

One is that most gay couples will not rush to exchange marriage vows just because they can. An estimated 4,312 gay and lesbian couples married in the Netherlands in 2001 and 2002 - about 2.5 percent of all marriages performed during that time, by one expert's count.

Another is that Europe's nation-by- nation (and America's state-by-state) approach to gay unions is producing a patchwork of varying laws that complicate legal and family issues.

Another potential problem after gay marriage has become legal is deciding the rights of those who perform wedding ceremonies. Can they refuse to marry homosexual couples because of their religious beliefs?

The Netherlands is now in the throes of sorting through some of these questions, an indication that ending the ban on same-sex marriage does not put an end to issues surrounding the debate.

In the Netherlands, a secular society that has long been in the vanguard of homosexual rights, the social impact of gay marriage has been less dramatic than some people had expected.

"It's difficult to notice a difference in general that has developed in the last two years," says Kees Waaldijk, who teaches law at the University of Leiden.

Two types of legal protection

Since 1998, the country has provided registered partnerships that give cohabiting couples, gay and heterosexual, almost all the same legal and economic rights of marriage. Given the choice, slightly more same-sex couples choose to marry rather than register their partnership.

Reasons for marrying vary widely. "Some just want to be sure all the paperwork is in order," says Lousewies van der Laan, a member of parliament for the centrist Democrats 66 party. "Some do it for very romantic reasons - love."

Many also see it as a symbolic act. "They want to show the world, their friends and family, and each other an official level of commitment," says Mr. Waaldijk.

Activists say it is also a way of being treated equally.

Even legal protections have limits, though. Other countries do not recognize Dutch same-sex marriages, creating problems for couples who travel or move.

Katharina Boele-Woelki, a professor of private international law at the University of Utrecht, tells of two Dutch men living in Germany who came back to the Netherlands to be married. When they returned to Germany, authorities there regarded the men as cohabiting partners, with no rights as a married couple.

Registered partnerships, now legal in approximately 10 European countries, also vary widely and do not cross borders.

Ms. Boele-Woelki, who has recently published a book on the legal recognition of same-sex marriages in Europe, expects the confusion to continue. "All these new forms of cohabitation cause a lot of private international-law problems," she says. Within two or three years, she expects major changes in legislation.