Yesterday, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the judicial body that oversees the European Union’s 28 member nations, ruled that all 28 nations must grant legal rights of residence to same-sex spouses legally wed elsewhere, even if their home countries do not allow legalized same-sex marriages. While this ruling mostly affects the six EU nations which don’t legally recognize same-sex relationships, this momentous Europe gay marriage decision could lay the groundwork for increased rights for same-sex couples in these six countries.
The case began in 2013 when Romanian activist Adrian Coman and his American husband Claibourn Robert Hamilton were denied spousal residency rights by Romania. The two had married in Belgium in 2010, but Romanian law prohibits marriages between same-sex couples. The couple filed a lawsuit, and the ECJ took up the case in 2016 after Romania’s Constitutional Court requested the court help interpret obligations under European Union law.
EU law states that all EU citizens and their spouses have the “freedom of movement,” that is, the right to live anywhere in the EU. (Though some EU nation governments, eager to avoid an influx of immigrants looking to enjoy a neighboring nation’s social welfare programs, require immigrants from neighboring EU nations to provide proof of health insurance or financial resources before allowing them to stay.)
But since EU law didn’t clearly designate whether the term “spouse” refers to same-sex or different-sex spouses, countries like Romania remained unsure as to whether same-sex spouses qualified for residential status within its borders.
The ECJ’s ruling allows same-sex spouses to reside alongside their partners in EU member nations, but the court made sure to state that EU nations still “have the freedom whether or not to authorize marriage between persons of the same sex.”
Right now, 13 EU nations have legalized same-sex marriages, and nine others offer same-sex civil unions. Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia are the only six EU nations not legally recognizing same-sex relationships.
This case differs from a similar-sounding ruling issued earlier this year by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). In January 2018, the IACHR ruled that Costa Rica and the court’s 19 other member states must recognize the validity of same-sex marriages, although it didn’t say how or by when.
Unlike the IACHR’s ruling, ECJ’s ruling doesn’t issue a blanket Europe gay marriage requirement commanding all EU nations to bestow upon same-sex couples the rights and privileges afforded to hetero couples. But the ECJ ruling does lay the groundwork for future battles for same-sex couples trying to access those rights and privileges.
Regardless, Coman and many EU LGBTQ activists see the recent ruling as an important win. He says, “We can now look in the eyes of any public official in Romania and across the EU with certainty that our relationship is equally valuable and equally relevant, for the purpose of free movement within the EU. … It is human dignity that wins today.”