Prague, Czech Republic – A decision by the European Union‘s top court recognising the rights of same-sex marriage has been lauded by LGBT advocates as a landmark victory for equal rights, despite the fact it’s still illegal in several member states.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Tuesday ruled in favour of Adrian Coman, a Romanian gay man seeking the right to have his American husband live with him in Romania, even though it doesn’t allow same-sex marriages.
As one of the most religious countries in the EU, Romania represents an Eastern Europe bloc of nations that are more socially conservative than their western neighbours.
“We are thrilled not only because this confirms to Adrian that they are family and are entitled to protection, but because the ruling empowers all LGBT couples out there in the same situation,” Romanita Iordache, who is on the legal team representing the couple and vice president of the LGBT advocacy group ACCEPT, told Al Jazeera.
“We are also thrilled because some still believe in the EU … This is about dignity and civil rights,” she said.
The closely watched case came after Coman accused Romanian authorities of discrimination after they refused to grant his husband the right to residency there following their marriage in Brussels in 2010.
After the couple appealed to the Romanian Constitutional Court, it was referred to the ECJ in Luxembourg.
“Our family exists regardless of the law in Romania. We promised to take care of each other for the rest of our lives, like any other married couple,” Coman told the court prior to the ruling.
“Our values do not differ from the values of other Romanian citizens and certainly do not differ from the values of European citizens.”
While the court expressly stated in a release that member states maintain the freedom to authorise marriage between persons of the same sex, “they may not obstruct the freedom of residence of an EU citizen by refusing to grant his same-sex spouse a national of a country that is not an EU Member State, a derived right of residence in their territory”.
It also clarified the word “spouse” is gender-neutral and therefore covers the same-sex spouse of an EU citizen.
“In our research, one of the key gaps in EU’s legal migration schemes is the very narrow definition of who are the ‘family members’ that third country nationals can bring with them,” Lina Vosyliute, a researcher in the justice and home affairs section of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies.
“This judgement sets an important precedent that could add clarity and enable third-country nationals, who come from outside the EU, to reunify with their same-sex spouses.”
Our family exists regardless of the law in Romania
Even though homosexuality was decriminalised in Romania in 2001, a powerful Christian lobby has moved the country closer towards a referendum expected in the coming months that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
“This type of marriage will remain banned and unrecognised in the future state of residence with the sole exception of the right of residence,” spokesman of the Romanian Patriarchate, Vasile Banescu, told local media following the decision. “The two were not given the right to live in Romania as spouses. They were given the right to live because they are husbands in an EU country, not us.”
While most EU countries currently have marriage equality laws, and others have legalised civil unions with either equivalent or restricted rights, Romania has no such laws. They are joined by Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Bulgaria.
Several analysts said the binding decision by the ECJ could further fracture an already-delicate relationship between western and Eastern Europe.
“In the current political climate, this decision is likely to weaken the ties between the new post-communist democracies and at least some of the west European member states,” said Arch Puddington, a scholar for democracy studies at Freedom House, a US government-funded NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy.
“It will likely animate further anti-EU denunciations from [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban and other critics, perhaps even some from populist parties in France, Italy, and elsewhere in the west.
“The decision may also be used as another bit of evidence by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his propagandists in their ongoing campaign to identify Europe as atheistic, anti-Christian, and prone to sexual radicalism,” he said.
Others, meanwhile, are worried conservative member states may drag their feet in implementing the law, whether because of religious views or as a snub to Brussels.
“To be honest, some states may not comply with the judgments straight away given the strong stance against marriage equality. They will take their time,” said Arpi Avetisyan, a litigation officer at LGBT advocate ILGA-Europe.
“On the other hand, they cannot prolong the process of complying with this process. It’s hard to remark on the timeline, but we will be monitoring with our people on the ground.”
With all 28 EU member states obliged to adopt the ruling, Coman said the ruling was a win for human dignity in Europe.
“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,” he said.