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.

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.

"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.

Another issue still to be resolved involves government registrars who perform same-sex marriages. A few have claimed the right to be excused, citing religious beliefs. Currently, they can refuse to marry a same-sex couple. But the issue is producing fierce debates in many local councils, says Henk Beerten, chairman of COC Netherlands, a gay and lesbian organization. He adds, "Some councils simply refuse to grant this exception."

Conflicting rights

Next spring the Ministry of Internal Affairs is expected to release a paper on the relationship among the fundamental freedoms - speech, religion, and the right not to be discriminated against - that are guaranteed by Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution. Gay couples claim the right not to be discriminated against, while some registrars believe their freedom of religion gives them the right to refuse to marry same-sex couples.

One town did not renew the contract of a registrar who said she would not be available for same-sex marriages. The woman appealed. "We still don't know if she has the right to invoke her conscience," Waaldijk says.

Adoption remains another legal issue. Same-sex couples can adopt children in the Netherlands, but usually not from abroad. Mr. Beerten thinks it is essential for homosexualparents to be able to adopt each other's children. If one partner dies, the other would have legal rights over the children.

When the subject turns to divorce, Dutch observers say it is too early to track the breakup of same-sex marriages. Beerten thinks gay divorce rates will probably parallel those for straight marriages.

Despite widespread tolerance for same-sex marriage in the Netherlands, opposition exists.

Peter Kohnen, spokesman for the Dutch Bishops' Conference, reiterates the Roman Catholic position, saying, "The institution of marriage needs to be exclusively reserved for the relationship between a man and a woman." Even so, he finds that in general "people want the church to bless these kinds of relationships, as the church blesses normal marriages."

Other churches also oppose gay marriage but accept it as a reality now that the law has changed, Beerten says. While fundamentalist religious groups are opposed, only a small percentage of the stricter Protestant political parties still think it should be abolished, Waaldijk says.

The Reformed Political Party, a conservative Christian party, opposed gay marriage during parliamentary debates. "We base our view on the Bible," says spokeswoman Rudi Biemond. "According to the Bible, same-sex marriage is not allowed."

Now, two years later, she expresses a tolerance that has become common. "I don't see that the outcome of the debate gives big problems in our society," she says. Calling Dutch culture "very individualistic," she adds, "Most people look on it as, it's not for me, but if people want it...."

One evening, when van der Laan and her husband attended an AIDS fundraiser, they were seated at a table with eight gay men, all married. "It was very interesting for me to be in a minority as a heterosexual," she says. "It's the first time I realized what it's like to be in the minority. In a democratic society, how we deal with our minorities is a measure of how civilized we are. Homosexuals are a minority."

Widespread debate important

At the same time, van der Laan understands the need for widespread debate on the subject. She sees advantages in the Dutch approach, which involved a parliamentary vote rather than a judicial ruling.

"The way we did it was getting a parliamentary majority," she explains. "It was quite broadly carried. It's a little different when elected political leaders decide what the next step will be, rather than judges. You need to be very sure that you have public support for this. Public support is very important."

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