Gay couples win equal tax benefits in German court

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Gay rights campaigners won a victory over the German government on June 6 as the country's top court ruled that same-sex couples in civil unions should receive the same tax benefits as heterosexual married couples.

The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that treating the two forms of partnership differently for tax purposes violates the country's guarantee of equal rights.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right government had long resisted granting the same tax benefits to gay couples in civil unions. Those unions - officially certified by a notary and carrying similar rights and duties to wedlock - are widely accepted by Germany's gay community as equivalent to marriage.

The court said that treating civil unions differently amounts to "unequal treatment because of sexual orientation." Failure to be vigilant in guaranteeing equality "leads to discrimination against a minority," it warned.

Married couples in Germany are able to jointly declare their taxable incomes, which can significantly lower their overall tax burden especially when one partner has higher pay. The rule costs the government annually about 15.5 billion euros ($20 billion), although it estimates that extending the same right to the country's some 27,000 civil unions will only add about 30 million euros to the bill.

The court acknowledged that married couples enjoy special privileges because the partners also accept a strong responsibility for each other, including financial, but it argued that the civil union implies the same duties and responsibilities for gay partners.

The court ordered the government to retroactively amend the relevant laws dating back to 2001, when civil union status was first introduced by a previous center-left government.

Two of the court's eight judges issued a dissenting minority opinion, but that does not affect the validity of the verdict.

The government vowed it will seek to get the necessary legislation passed by this fall to implement the court decision.

Gay rights campaigners cheered the court decision.

"This is a full-blown victory," said opposition lawmaker Volker Beck, an outspoken gay-rights advocate. He added that the next hurdle should be to grant gay couples equal rights when it comes to adoption.

"The principle of equal treatment is valid for all citizens, independently of their sexual orientation," said the German Association of Lesbians and Gays. Merkel's government "refuses to learn that lesson by all means."