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Why same-sex marriage just got a big step closer to reality in Switzerland

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Why same-sex marriage just got a big step closer to reality in Switzerland
A motion calling for same-sex marriage to be made legal was filed in the Swiss parliament way back in 2013. File photo: AFP
10:34 CET+01:00
On a hugely symbolic date (Valentine’s Day), Switzerland made an important move towards making same-sex marriages legal. Here is what happened.

Thursday was a big day for romance in Switzerland. But as couples showered each other with flowers and chocolate (what else?), big moves were also afoot in Bern, as a parliamentary committee thrashed out options for a new draft law on same-sex marriage. 

Late in the day, the committee announced in a statement it had finished off its talks and was now launching a consultation process. Here's what happened and why it matters.

What is the current situation with same-sex marriage in Switzerland?

Same-sex marriage is currently illegal in Switzerland. There is a ‘registered partnership’ option which allows same-sex couples (and de facto couples) to enjoy many of the same rights and obligations (including having to file joint tax returns) as married couples.

But there are a couple of critical differences. Firstly, if you are in a registered partnership, you are not allowed to jointly adopt children or have children using artificial insemination. (In a small step, forward, however, people in a registered partnership can now adopt their partner’s child from a previous relationship.)

Secondly, unlike being in a marriage, being in a registered partnership does not give the foreign partner of a Swiss citizen access to the easier, ‘facilitated’ naturalisation process for Swiss citizenship.

Isn’t it a bit surprising that same-sex marriage is illegal in Switzerland?

Yet it is, especially given Switzerland’s liberal approach to many other issues (think the right to a dignified death or the approach to prostitution). 

On the other hand, Germany only introduced gay marriage in 2017, while Austria only took the step this year.

But a move to have same-sex marriage legalized has actually been in the pipeline since way back in 2013. That’s when Green Liberal MP Kathrin Bertschy first launched a parliamentary initiative calling for the Swiss constitution to be changed to ensure same-sex couples ensure the same rights as married couples.

Why has it taken so long to reach this stage?

For two mean reasons: Swiss politics is not known for moving quickly, and legislative proposals tends to bounce around from department to department for some time.

In addition, politics in Switzerland is very much about building consensus. The idea is to get as close as possible to ensuring that all objections have been answered before a draft law arrives in parliament for approval, so that it has the maximum chance of being passed (this is also why the Swiss parliament often looks like it is simply rubber-stamping laws – much of the hard work has already been done behind the scenes).

In the case of a complex issue like same-sex marriage, this consensus-building is a difficult process.

So what has changed now?

On Thursday, the Legal Affairs Committee of the Swiss lower house of parliament (the National Council) finally approved the sending out of new preliminary draft bills on same-sex marriage for consultation.

In an exciting development, two different alternatives are being considered.

The first ‘streamlined’ version of a same-sex marriage bill (which was overwhelmingly backed by the parliamentary committee) would ensure that people in same-sex marriages enjoy equal adoption and citizenship rights with married couples.

The second version up for discussion would also grant lesbian couples access to sperm donation services – an option campaigned for by Swiss LGBTS groups. However, while this possibility will now be debated, the lower house legal affairs committee chose not to give its seal of approval to this option. It argued giving lesbian couples access to sperm donor services would lead to unequal treatment of marriages between two women and marriages between two men.

Crucially, it also argued that giving lesbian couples this right would reduce the chances of a same-sex marriage law being passed, which leads back to the point about consensus building above.

It all sounds a bit technical…

Thursday’s developments are actually a big deal. And this is not just because the parliamentary committee’s sending out of documents for consultation is an important political milestone.

It is important to stress that under the options to be sent out for consultation, no changes would need to made to the Swiss constitution. This is critical because under Swiss law any changes to the constitution must go before the people in a ‘mandatory referendum’, which means a great deal more uncertainty in terms of whether same-sex marriage can become legal in Switzerland.

Read also: How Switzerland's direct democracy system works

Instead, the same-sex marriage law would only face the possible challenge of an ‘optional referendum’. These optional referendums can be triggered if 50,000 signatures are gathered within 100 days of a new law being passed.

What happens next?

The two options for same-sex marriage legislation will be sent out for consultation in coming weeks. After this consultation process, the Swiss government (the Federal Council) will revisit the legislation and could then present it the Swiss parliament for approval.

There appears to be a chance that the option for making sperm donation legal for married women will disappear during that consultation process, if stakeholders feel it is too controversial.

In the meantime, while same-sex couples who wish to marry in Switzerland can feel hopeful after Thursday’s developments, they are unlikely to be able to walk down the aisle in the very near future. The wait continues.

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