Same-sex marriage referendum on the horizon in Switzerland

Same-sex marriage is one step closer in Switzerland, after the National Council voted in favour of the 'Marriage For All' initiative.

Same-sex marriage referendum on the horizon in Switzerland
Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

On Thursday morning, Switzerland's lower house surprisingly voted in favour of a proposal with two important components which will have potentially significant impacts for same-sex couples. 

The first part of the proposal is to allow same-sex couples to marry in Switzerland. The second is allowing lesbian couples to access sperm donation services. 

The proposal passed the National Council by 132 votes to 52, with 13 abstentions. Other than the right-wing Swiss People's Party, the proposal was supported by all major Swiss political parties. 

Prior to the vote, there were suggestions that the proposals would be split and subject to a separate vote, due to the controversial sperm donation bill. 

The proposal was controversial not due to providing sperm donation services to lesbian Swiss, but by its requirement that the non-birthing lesbian partner be considered a parent

The proposal will now go to the Council of States, where if approved it will be put before the Swiss populace for a referendum. 

The vote in the Council of States is not expected until after summer, with the referendum to be scheduled if the vote is successful. 

The National Council vote follows a referendum in February which criminalised homophobia

READ: Everything you need to know about Switzerland's homophobia referendum

Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter spoke out in favour of the proposal, saying “the law should be revised in stages and same-sex marriage introduced as soon as possible”.

Swiss justice minister Karin Keller-Sutter. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini

Will the proposal pass the Council of States? 

Given that the current proposal is supported by the vast majority of the Swiss political establishment, it is favoured to pass when put to a vote in the Council of States. 

Angelo Barrile, of the Social Democrats, told Swiss news site Watson that he was optimistic that the proposal will pass. 

“The signal from the National Council about marriage and sperm donation was so clear. I expect the Council of States to follow the National Council,” he said on Thursday.

“The decision was overdue, especially after the people backed us up with a yes to protection against discrimination.”

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 legalised 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.

It all sounds a bit technical… what happens next?

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, particularly given the controversial sperm donation requirement. 

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.

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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EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland has not banned ‘gay conversion therapy’

Banned in several other countries across the globe, so-called ‘gay conversion therapy’ remains legal in Switzerland.

EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland has not banned ‘gay conversion therapy’

In September 2021, almost two thirds of Swiss voters approved a proposal via referendum to allow same-sex marriage in Switzerland. 

The law will come into effect from mid-2022 onwards. 

READ MORE:UPDATE: Swiss voters say big ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage

Despite this, therapies to “cure” homosexuality remain legal across Switzerland. Similar therapies have been banned in neighbouring Germany and France in recent years. 

While actual instances of this therapy are relatively rare, there have been increasing calls for a ban in recent decades. 

Why is ‘gay conversion therapy’ still legal in Switzerland? 

The answer, as with many questions in Switzerland, comes down to the country’s federal-cantonal system along with conservative voices still maintaining a prominent role in society. 

While several cantons including Basel, Bern and Zurich have indicated a desire to stamp out the practice, bans are difficult at a cantonal level. 

‘Deviance and morality’: The history of the same-sex marriage movement in Switzerland

Basel City has banned the practice, but authorities in Bern and Zurich believe that such bans can only take place at a federal level. 

There is also political opposition to change, particularly among the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which remains Switzerland’s largest and most popular political party. 

David Trachsel, President of the young SVP, said such therapies should remain legal as they were not mandatory and were only made available to those who sought help. 

“Anyone who wants help should be able to get it,” Trachsel told Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes. 

Where such therapies were coerced, then Trachsel said bans and further consequences should be implemented. 

“If the person takes part in such therapy due to external pressure, then this must be prosecuted.”

Sarah Wyss, from the Social Democrats, said the therapies were outdated. 

“To describe homosexuality as ‘curable’ is catastrophic.”

Wyss’ National Council colleague, from the Green Liberal Party, agreed with Wyss. 

“I don’t understand what there is to heal. Nobody is treated because they prefer to eat apples than bananas.” 

She did however decline to advocate for a complete ban, saying such therapies should only be banned for minors. 

“Especially in the case of minors, problems with sexual orientation can actually only be attributed to social conflicts.”

Will these therapies be banned in the future? 

As yet, the legal validity of a canton-only ban has not been tested, although Bern and Zurich authorities believe a federal solution is needed. 

The most recent effort to ban the therapies for minors only took place in 2016 federally, although the Swiss Federal Council at the time said it saw “no possibility or need for action specifically aimed at protecting minors from therapies against homosexuality”.

Authorities in Basel City have launched an initiative to have the practice banned, which may result in a federal vote on the matter. 

READ MORE: Same-sex couples can marry from July 1st in Switzerland

According to the initiative, Basel City authorities want conversion therapy to be banned, those who practice it (i.e. therapists and preachers) to face bans and further consequences to be laid out for those who continue to practice it. 

Trachsel said he opposed this plan as it led to a blanket ban on all forms of therapy related to sexuality, which could lead to people being prosecuted despite helping those who asked for assistance.