Merkel on Marriage

On Friday, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in an historic 5-4 vote. After decades of activism and litigation, the Court recognized that same-sex couples cannot be denied marriage under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

The same debate that led to this outcome is also underway across the Atlantic. Germany is facing public pressure to decide on this issue, as are several European states. Most recently, the Republic of Ireland voted in a landmark referendum to allow same-sex marriage, defying its Catholic roots. Several other nations have already extended marriage rights, including all of Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and France, among others. Notably absent is Germany. A recent article from The Economist shows a map of Europe, charting the status of same-sex partnerships across the continent. Recognition of same-sex marriage flows from west to east, from full legal rights to no legal recognition, with Germany sitting somewhere in between. Germany has just begun recognizing civil unions but not marriages, giving same-sex couples the same tax and inheritance rights as heterosexual couples, but denying full adoption rights. This recognition of benefits happened recently—just days after the Irish referendum. Nearly three weeks following the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court, in an interview with German Youtube star Florian Mundt, alias LeFloid, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a statement expressing her view of marriage as being between a man and woman but also showing her support for civil unions, explaining that same-sex couples should be entitled to marital benefits, but should not be allowed to marry. The impact of the Supreme Court decision on Germany’s policies toward gay rights will likely be small in the sense of legislation, given Merkel’s political affiliations and personal views, but may well reverberate across the German population and continue to stir up the debate.

Similar to the United States, German public opinion has changed rapidly on this issue. According to a 2013 poll, roughly 75 percent of Germans are in favor of full marriage rights for LGBT couples, with many Germans expressing their embarrassment about the lack of political attention the issue has received from the current leadership—despite Germany being one of the first countries to recognize civil partnerships in 2001. Merkel, as the leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is in an awkward position. Although she has slowly pushed the CDU in a more liberal direction, gay marriage remains far from agreed upon within the party. Outside of Merkel’s CDU (and sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, CSU), the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party have both expressed their support for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

In the United States, the Supreme Court decision in some ways alleviates the political dimension of same-sex marriage. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, the decision has minimized candidates’ concern over how to address (or tiptoe around) this issue in light of a liberalizing population. A hotly-debated topic for decades, the reactions of religious, states’ rights, and libertarian candidates are rapidly coming to light. Candidate Jeb Bush stated that he will not seek to amend the Constitution to reinstate a ban, while his more conservative counterparts have come out in vehement opposition. Now that this contentious issue is virtually moot—at least for the time being—how will presidential candidates use this ruling as their campaigns continue? Will this decision inspire change across the Atlantic?

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.