On Feb. 12, the French National Assembly is expected to pass a measure legalizing same-sex marriage. Although the bill still needs to win the approval of the French Senate and be signed by the president, it is expected to become law as soon as May 2013. This would make France the 12th country in the world that allows gays and lesbians to legally wed. The United Kingdom may soon follow. On Feb. 5, the British House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favor of a same-sex marriage measure. Another vote in the House of Commons and a vote in the House of Lords are still to come, but the bill is expected to pass and become law in summer 2013.
As the votes in France and Britain indicate, the idea of marriage is changing, at least in the West. Indeed, most of the countries that currently allow gays and lesbians to wed are in Europe and the Americas. In two other countries, the United States and Mexico, some jurisdictions have allowed gays and lesbians to wed, while others have not.
The following is a list of nations that have approved same-sex marriage laws – either nationwide or in certain jurisdictions.
In December 2000, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage when the Dutch parliament passed, by a three-to-one margin, a landmark bill allowing the practice. The legislation gave same-sex couples the right to marry, divorce and adopt children. The legislation altered a single sentence in the existing civil marriage statute, which now reads, “A marriage can be contracted by two people of different or the same sex.”
The only opposition in parliament came from the Christian Democratic Party, which at the time was not part of the governing coalition. After the law went into effect, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, which then represented about 12% of the country’s population, announced that individual congregations could decide whether to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. Although Muslim and conservative Christian groups continue to oppose the law, same-sex marriage is widely accepted by the Dutch public.
Beginning in 1998, the Belgian parliament offered limited rights to same-sex couples through registered partnerships. Same-sex couples could register with a city clerk and formally assume joint responsibility for a household. Five years later, in January 2003, the Belgian parliament legalized same-sex marriage, giving gay and lesbian couples the same tax and inheritance rights as heterosexual couples.
Support for the law came from both the Flemish-speaking North and the French-speaking South, and the law generated surprisingly little controversy across the country. The long-dominant Christian Democratic Party, traditionally allied with the Catholic Church, was out of power when the parliament passed the measure.
The 2003 law allowed the marriages of Belgian same-sex couples and recognized as married those from other countries where same-sex marriage was legal. Those provisions were broadened in 2004 to allow any same-sex couple to marry as long as one member of the couple had lived in Belgium for at least three months. In 2006, the parliament also granted same-sex partners the right to adopt children.
A closely divided Spanish parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, guaranteeing identical rights to all married couples regardless of sexual orientation. The new measure added language to the existing marriage statute, which now reads, “Marriage will have the same requirements and results when the two people entering into the contract are of the same sex or of different sexes.”
Vatican officials, as well as the Catholic Spanish Bishops Conference, strongly criticized the law, and large crowds demonstrated in Madrid for and against the measure. After the law went into effect, the country’s constitutional court rejected challenges from two municipal court judges who had refused marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The high court ruled that the lower court judges lacked legal standing to bring the suits.
Same-sex couples in Canada gained most of the legal benefits of marriage in 1999 when the federal and provincial governments extended common law marriages to gay and lesbian couples. Through a series of court cases beginning in 2003, same-sex marriage gradually became legal in nine of the country’s 13 provinces and territories. In 2005, the Canadian Parliament passed legislation making same-sex marriage legal nationwide. In 2006, lawmakers defeated an effort by the ruling Conservative Party of Canada to reconsider the issue, leaving the law unchanged.
The South African parliament legalized same-sex marriage in November 2006, one year after the country’s highest court ruled that the previous marriage laws violated the South African constitution’s guarantee of equal rights. The new law allows for religious institutions and civil officers to refuse to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, a provision that critics claim violates the rights of same-sex couples under the constitution.
The new measure passed by a margin of greater than five-to-one, with support coming from both the governing African National Congress as well as the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. However, the traditional monarch of the Zulu people, who account for about one-fifth of the country’s population, maintains that homosexuality is morally wrong.
Since January 2009, gay couples in Norway legally have been able to marry, adopt children and undergo artificial insemination. The new law replaced a 1993 law permitting civil unions. The 2009 law was passed despite resistance from members of the Christian Democratic Party and the Progress Party, as well as a public controversy over state funding for fertility treatments for lesbian couples.
The largest religious group in the country, the Lutheran-affiliated Church of Norway, was split over the issue. Following passage of the new law, the church’s leaders voted to prohibit its pastors from conducting same-sex weddings. But the Church of Norway does allow clergy to bless same-sex unions.
In April 2009, the Swedish parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to legalize same-sex marriage. Gay couples in Sweden had been allowed to register for civil unions since 1995.
The 2009 law allows gays and lesbians to marry in both religious and civil ceremonies, but it does not require clergy to officiate at such ceremonies. The Lutheran-affiliated Church of Sweden, to which roughly three-quarters of all Swedes belong, has offered blessings for same-sex partnerships since January 2007. In October 2009, the church’s governing board voted to allow its clergy to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.
In June 2010, Portugal became the eighth country to legalize same-sex marriage. Its parliament had passed the measure legalizing gay marriage earlier in 2010. But following its passage, Portugal’s president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, asked the Constitutional Court to review the measure. In April 2010, the Constitutional Court declared the law to be constitutionally valid. It was signed by Silva in May of that year and took effect one month later. Portugal’s gay marriage law does not give married same-sex couples the right to adopt children.
A measure legalizing same-sex marriage passed the Icelandic legislature in June 2010. Public opinion polls prior to the vote indicated broad support for the measure, and no members of the country’s legislature voted against it. Iceland had allowed same-sex couples to register as domestic partners since 1996. A decade later, the parliament passed a measure allowing gay couples to adopt children.
After the new law took effect in late June 2010, the country’s prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, wed her longtime partner, Jonina Leosdottir, becoming one of the first people to marry under the statute.
In July 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage. In spite of vigorous opposition from the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant churches, the measure passed both houses of the Argentine legislature and was signed into law by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The law grants same-sex couples who marry all the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by heterosexual couples, including the right to adopt children.
In the decade before the enactment of the same-sex marriage law, a number of local jurisdictions, including the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires, had enacted laws allowing gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.
In June 2012, Denmark’s legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage. The measure was enacted into law a few days later when Queen Margrethe II gave her royal assent to the bill.
In 1989, Denmark became the first country to allow same-sex couples to register as domestic partners. And in 2010, the country enacted a law allowing gay couples in registered partnerships the right to adopt children.
With the legalization of gay marriage, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark (which is the state church), is required to allow same-sex couples to marry in churches. However, no member of the church’s clergy is required to perform the wedding of a gay or lesbian couple. In addition, the law leaves it up to other religious groups to determine whether or not to allow same-sex weddings in its churches.
United States (2003)
Same-sex marriages were first made legal in the U.S. in Massachusetts in 2003, when the state’s highest court ruled that the Massachusetts Constitution gives gays and lesbians the right to marry. Since then, eight other states – Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington – and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage through court decisions, legislative action or statewide referendums. Legislatures in other states, including Illinois and Rhode Island, are in the midst of debates in 2013 over whether to allow gay marriage. In addition, the Supreme Court in 2013 will hear and rule on two important same-sex marriage cases, opening the possibility of national change.
In December 2009, the government of Mexico City legalized same-sex marriage within its jurisdiction. The decision was challenged in court, but the law was upheld by Mexico’s Supreme Court, which in August 2010 ruled that same-sex marriages performed in Mexico City were valid and that they must be accepted throughout the country. Since 2011, the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo also has allowed gay marriages.
This fact sheet was compiled by Senior Researcher David Masci, Research Analyst Elizabeth Sciupac, and former Research Assistants Hope Lozano-Bielat and Michelle Ralston.