In just a few days I will be traveling to Europe, the land of ‘better’ rights, but, not necessarily equal ones.  I wanted to leave you with an entry before I left and that has led me to exploring German tax rights for same-sex couples.

Germany has had Civil Unions for same-sex couples since 2001. While Civil Unions are not technically marriages, Germany’s federal recognition, as early as 2001, frankly embarrasses me. Here we are, in 2012, fighting tooth and nail so that a mere portion of our states might legalize marriage or enact its state equivalent.  

It’s true that progress in the U.S. seems to be coming more rapidly, and I don’t think that federal recognition is far away, but it is only that.  My use of the word ‘recognition’, instead of ‘equality’, is quite intentional.  As illustrated by the development of same-sex rights in Germany, recognition of same-sex couples does not necessarily equalize rights.

Since 2001, Germany has had to make significant expansions to Civil Union rights in order for them to be more equal to marriages.  As with the United States, many of the rights have been granted by the courts.  In Germany, the decisions have predominately been made by the Federal Constitutional Court which is in some ways similar the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Naturally, of particular interest to me has been the extension of income and tax rights to German same-sex couples. The first such extension came in 2008 when a surviving partner was refused a Widow’s Pension Fund.  The court that heard the case ruled that the refusal violated the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; a logical argument that I wish had more clout in the United States.  We seem to have to resort to technicalities and loopholes just to prove a point of common sense and decency.  

Next, in 2010, the court ruled it unconstitutional to treat same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples in a case related to inheritance tax.  This is similar to the famous case Windsor v United States.  Although the lower courts have ordered that Edie Windsor be given a refund of the taxes she paid, the case is still facing appeals and is likely heading to the Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, Germany’s case ruling not only relieved same-sex couples of a tax that their straight counterparts were exempt from, it also ordered that the government compensate surviving partners that had previously paid the tax; a respectful move that, dare I say, will never happen here.

There is speculation that the German government is close to making further changes that will equalize tax rights across the board.  What’s interesting about this development is who supports it and who opposes. 

The current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is expected to support the expansion of rights.  She is part of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a conservative party whose members have recently released a statement calling for equal tax treatment.  The CDU is in coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a party typically supporting business interests. They are also in coalition with the Christian Social Union (CSU), a predominately Catholic party.  While the FDP has long supported equal rights for same sex couples, the CSU is, unsurprisingly, unsupportive.   What is surprising is that the other opposing party is the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a historically liberal party.

At first I found it strange that the conservative, business minded parties were in support of same-sex rights while the liberal party was in opposition.  That sort of landscape is nearly opposite of what we are used to here.  Then I remembered that it’s politics.  As it turns out, Angela Merkel is suspected of merely trying to save face for her upcoming re-election campaign.  She and her party have developed a reputation of opposing legislation only to have the Federal Constitutional Court rule against their position.  As a result, Merkel is expected to support the tax right expansion, just so she can do it before the court does.   As for the SPD, they are apparently not as liberal as they once were. An emerging liberal party, the Left Party, has recently poached many SDP members after the party supported grossly unpopular welfare cuts.

Regardless of the motivations behind these legal changes, the result is the same.  If Germany extends equal tax rights to its citizens, progress has been made, both in Germany and abroad.  I should be happy about all of this, and a part of me is, but there’s just one thing I can’t get past.  Germany’s path to providing equal rights to all couples seems to be a foreshadowing of what is to come in the US. Our road has been similarly marked with case after case arguing that there exists a discrepancy of rights when it comes to partnerships and marriages.  Well, of course there is. We as a nation have proclaimed that partnerships and marriages are not the same thing, even if the rights should be.  But, didn’t we determine, in 1954, that “separate but equal” doesn’t work?  Please, someone tell me how the marriage issue is any different.

“The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating … is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the… group.” – The Supreme Court of the United States, 1954, Brown V. Board of Education.

“The words (separate but equal)….. it is true, are prohibitory, but they contain a necessary implication of a positive immunity, or right, most valuable…..,—the right to exemption from un-friendly legislation against them distinctively,…—exemption from legal discrimination, implying inferiority in civil society, lessening the security of their enjoyment of the rights which others enjoy, and discriminations which are steps towards reducing them to the condition of a subject race.”  – The Supreme Court of the United States, 1954, Brown V. Board of Education.