July 9, 2009

Gay Marriage Around the World

Navigate this Report:
Countries That Allow Gay Marriage
The Netherlands
South Africa
Looking Ahead
Countries That Ban Gay Marriage
Registered Partnerships and Other Legal Arrangements

In many countries around the globe, the institution of marriage is in flux as governments consider whether to allow gay and lesbian couples the right to marry or enter into other legally recognized forms of domestic partnership. Currently, countries around the world, mostly in Europe, offer varying levels of marriage rights to gay couples.
Gay marriage world map

Countries That Allow Gay Marriage

The Netherlands (2000)

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 its 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, as well as homosexuality itself, same-sex marriage is widely accepted by the Dutch public.

In April 2001, the mayor of Amsterdam officiated at the ceremonies of the first four gay couples to be married. More than 2,400 same-sex couples married in the Netherlands within nine months of the passage of the new law, according to government figures. Since then, the annual number of same-sex marriages has declined, from 1,838 in 2002 to 1,371 in 2007.

Belgium (2003)

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.

About 3,500 same-sex couples had married in Belgium as of 2006.

Spain (2005)

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 brief new 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.

According to a survey by Instituto Opina, a private Spanish polling organization, approximately 62% of the public favored the legislation on the day before it was passed. Nine months later, about the same number (61%) supported the measure.

More than 10,000 same-sex couples had married in Spain by the end of 2008. The first same-sex divorce was granted in June 2006.

Canada (2005)

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.

A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation survey conducted three months before the law was enacted found that 52% of Canadians opposed the legislation. But one month after passage of the law, 55% favored keeping it on the books. That number stood at 58% in December 2006. In 2006, lawmakers defeated an effort by the ruling Conservative Party of Canada to reconsider the issue, leaving the law unchanged.

South Africa (2006)

The South African parliament legalized same-sex marriage in November 2006, one year after the country’s highest court had ruled that the existing 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.

Norway (2009)

As of January 2009, gay couples in Norway can legally marry, adopt children and undergo artificial insemination. The new law replaces 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.

According to a poll conducted by a Norwegian newspaper two months prior to the enactment of the new law, a majority of the public (58%) said they supported the proposed law to legalize gay marriage; only 31% of the public opposed it. The largest religious group in the country, the Lutheran-affiliated Church of Norway, was split over the issue. Following the passage of the new law, the church’s leaders voted to prohibit its pastors from conducting same-sex weddings.

Sweden (2009)

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 new law allows gays and lesbians to marry in religious or 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 will decide whether to bless same-sex marriages.

There is substantial support in Sweden for same-sex marriage. In January 2008, 71% of Swedes said they would support gay couples’ right to marry, according to a poll conducted by the SIFO Institute. Similarly, a January 2009 poll conducted by Sveriges Television found that 68% of pastors in the Lutheran Church of Sweden said they would officiate at gay marriages in their church.

Looking Ahead

Nepal could be the next country to legalize gay marriage if its national government carries out a mandate by the country’s high court to introduce same-sex marriage legislation by 2010.

Countries That Ban Gay Marriage

Meanwhile, other countries, including Honduras, Latvia and Uganda, banned same-sex marriage in 2005. Nigeria could be the next country to outlaw same-sex marriage if legislation introduced in January 2009 is passed. And in Greece, a court in May 2009 ruled that two same-sex marriages performed the year before were illegal and therefore void. In addition, at least 70 countries explicitly outlaw homosexuality.

Registered Partnerships and Other Legal Arrangements

The extension of legal rights to same-sex couples began in 1989, when Denmark created registered partnerships that extended property and inheritance rights to same-sex couples. This marked the first time a national government guaranteed gay and lesbian households some of the legal rights long held by heterosexual married couples. Norway took similar action in 1993, followed by Sweden in 1995 and Iceland in 1996; other European countries soon followed suit. Other nations in Europe, South America and elsewhere have expanded the rights of same-sex couples by granting them some legal rights without using the word “marriage.”

In 2002, Buenos Aires became the first city in Latin America to allow civil unions for gay couples. Within the same week, the Argentine province of Rio Negro also passed legislation allowing same-sex civil unions. Currently, Villa Carlos Paz, another Argentine city, also provides for same-sex civil unions. In November 2006, Mexico City became the first of Mexico’s regional governments to pass a law recognizing same-sex civil unions, followed quickly by the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. Other Latin American states that recognize same-sex civil unions include Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul (2004). Legislation to allow same-sex unions countrywide is pending in Ecuador.

Australia, while not recognizing same-sex partnerships at the federal level, has three provinces that have each passed legislation allowing for registration of same-sex couples. Tasmania passed its law in 2004; Australian Capital Territory and Victoria both passed their laws in 2008. Also in 2008, Uruguay became the first country in Latin America to pass a nationwide law allowing civil unions for same-sex couples who have lived together for at least five years.

In late 2006, Israel, which has offered common law marriages to homosexuals since 1994, legally recognized same-sex marriages performed in other countries; France (2008) and Japan (2009) also recently started recognizing such marriages.

Meanwhile, several international organizations have advocated for anti-discrimination laws to protect homosexuals. In 2006, the European Parliament denounced countries, specifically Poland and the Baltic states, for not granting equal rights to homosexuals. It deemed such countries “homophobic,” and it has since called on its member states to recognize same-sex partnerships. Similarly, in late 2008, France and the Netherlands co-sponsored a United Nations declaration for worldwide gay rights, which was signed by 66 of the 192 member countries. Despite such organizations’ efforts to promote anti-discrimination laws worldwide, resolutions and declarations from the European Parliament and United Nations are not binding and therefore cannot be imposed upon member countries.

This fact sheet was compiled by Senior Research Fellow David Masci and Research Assistants Hope Lozano-Bielat, Michelle Ralston and Elizabeth Podrebarac, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Photo credit: Martin Ruetschi/Keystone/Corbis