Same-sex unions: Is the Czech Republic ready for gay marriage?

A new bill on registered partnerships for same-sex couples is due to go before the Czech parliament in the coming weeks. Although similar legislation has failed in the past, polls show that public opinion has become increasingly favourable toward same-sex unions in recent years, and analysts say that this time the legislation has a reasonable chance of being adopted. So is the Czech Republic about to join a number of Western European countries in permitting registered partnerships? In this week's Talking Point, we look at the issue of same-sex unions in the Czech Republic and ask whether Czechs really are ready to accept gay marriage.

When it comes to sexual attitudes, the Czech Republic is probably one of the most liberal of the former Communist nations. This is probably why polls show that attitudes to gays and lesbians are relatively positive and open in this country, and that support for same-sex unions has been steadily rising here since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Although the Czech parliament has regularly voted down legislation on same-sex civil unions or "registered partnerships" in the past, this may be about to change. The lower house of parliament has recently passed a bill on registered partnerships for same-sex couples in its first reading. The bill is now due to be put to a full vote in the house, and it seems to have a good chance of passing.

Nevertheless, the bill is not without its opponents. The Christian Democrat party, for instance, is uniformly opposed to the draft legislation. Vilem Holan is one of the Christian Democrat MPs who will be voting against the bill when it comes before parliament. He does not see why same-sex unions should be legally recognised:

"I would like to emphasise that we have nothing against people with a different sexual orientation to that of the majority of inhabitants. We do not want to intervene in their lives. We have only one reason for opposing the adoption of the law on so-called registered partnerships. The reason is that the traditional family needs and deserves special assistance as well as a special legal position and special legal tools, because it takes care of children and educates them. While legal advantages for homosexual couples would only operate for their benefit and this would be unjust in our opinion."

Many opponents of the bill, such as Mr Holan, feel that the legal recognition of registered partnerships for gays and lesbians is inappropriate at a time when the Czech family is seen as an embattled institution. They say that enacting legislation like this when births and weddings are in decline and divorce rates are soaring sends out the wrong message.

Ivo Prochazka is a member of the Gay Initiative organisation. So what does he think about claims that introducing a bill on registered partnerships serves to undermine family values?

"I absolutely disagree, because I think it's a conservative law. It's not something that works against the family. It supports the stability of partnerships. It could also be useful to the heterosexual community if people would stabilise their partnerships. This would be good for everyone."

Mr Prochazka says that registered partnerships would enable gay and lesbian couples in a long-term relationship to have the same rights similar to those married of heterosexual couples. This would hopefully allow them to view information on each other's medical condition and to be treated as next-of-kin during inheritance proceedings.

Mr Holan, however, believes that current legislation allows for this anyway without the need for registered partnerships to be enshrined in law:

"All these demands can be resolved using civil law. They can have a written agreement concerning inheritance, for example. It is also possible to establish the status of both partners under civil law."

Ivo Prochazka rejects this claim. He says that the idea of a same-sex couple concluding an agreement or contract ensuring all the rights and obligations of a registered partnership would be too impractical, as they would have to think of every possible eventuality that might beset their relationship.

Besides the practical legal advantages of registered partnerships, Mr Prochazka says that there are also important social and psychological reasons for officially recognising same-sex unions:

"It's also important to accept this law from a psychological point of view, because it allows two people to be officially recognised as partners, and this is important for the stability of their partnership. It supports the feeling that you are part of [one another's] life and so on. I think it's not just a legal issue but also a psychosocial issue."

Although the bill would give gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts, it crucially stops short of allowing them to adopt children, which would probably be too much for many conservatives to bear.

This does little to appease traditionalists like Mr Holan, however, who fears that this bill might just be the thin end of the wedge, which would eventually lead to same-sex couples being able to adopt children:

"This proposed bill does not propose the adoption of children, but I think that if we adopt this bill, maybe after a few months or years a new proposal will be put forward for such a possibility."

Mr Prochazka, for his part, thinks that if the proposed law is accepted, it won't have any far-reaching social repercussions, but would simply allow same-sex couples to regularise their relationship.

"I would like to register with my partner if [the law] is accepted, but it's very difficult to say what kind of difference it could have. Nevertheless, I think it's important for us because we have been living together for 20 years. We feel it could be useful for us personally, for any situation that could arise."

Public opinion polls show that most Czechs have no objection to the legal recognition of registered partnerships.

Here's what some Czechs on the streets of Prague at the weekend had to say about same-sex unions:

"For me, a regular partnership is between a woman and a man. So I'm not against [same sex unions] but for me it's not right. I'm not going to tell someone what to do, but for me it's not right."

"I'm absolutely in favour of partnerships for lesbians and homosexuals."

There are some who say it would undermine the role of the family in Czech society...

"I don't think so. This concerns so few people that it won't have such an influence."

"I think everybody is free and if lesbians want to marry then why not? The same goes for gays as well."

"Why not? We should be open-minded."

You don't think it damages society in any way?

"Not at all. Damage is something much worse than this."

"I'm of the same opinion."

Do you not think that with the family in such a weak position at the moment and with such a low birth rate that it might send out the wrong message?

"No. It can't influence this. If somebody is not attracted to the other sex, they cannot have children anyway."

"This is a very difficult question for me. I think it's good for a child to have a pattern of family life comprising a man and a woman. On the other hand, there are a lot of dysfunctional heterosexual families. So I don't know. It's a very difficult question for me."

"I think it's a good idea. I think people should have the right to a same-sex partnership. However, I'm not quite sure if these people should be able to adopt a child. I don't think society is quite ready for that. We are quite a traditional society, so I think registered partnerships is a good first step. I'm keen on this idea, but I think that it should stop there."