June 12, 2008
On Wednesday, Norway’s Parliament voted 84-41 to make that country’s marriage law gender-neutral, thereby granting same-sex couples the right to marry and to adopt children on an equal basis with heterosexual couples. The new law will also allow the Church of Norway to bless same-sex marriages, although each congregation may be permitted to decide for itself whether to conduct weddings for gay and lesbian couples.
Norway thus becomes the world’s sixth nation to grant marriage equality to same-sex couples, joining the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa.
With the exception of South Africa, all of those countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Norwegian Parliament’s vote is the most recent sign of the widening gap between the United States and its NATO allies on national policies concerning human rights for sexual minorities, exemplified by laws concerning committed relationships and military service.
In addition to the 5 countries with marriage equality, 9 other NATO member countries allow same-sex couples to register their partnerships and thereby enjoy many of the same rights and obligations as married couples — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, and Luxembourg. And Portugal recognizes unregistered cohabitation, which gives same-sex couples some of the limited rights (excluding joint adoption) enjoyed by different-sex couples living in a de facto union for more than two years.
Most of the NATO members that recognize marriage or same-sex registered partnerships also permit military service by gay people. In addition, some NATO countries that don’t recognize same-sex relationships nevertheless permit gay personnel to serve in their military. Estonia, Italy, and Lithuania are in this group.
[Note: Greece bans gay officers but permits gay enlisted conscripts, and Portugal has no formal ban on gay personnel but may screen out homosexuals during the induction process. As Profs. Aaron Belkin and Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert point out in a recent review of international military policies, "Because of the range of policies, it is, indeed, a complex task to track the status of regulations and customs concerning gays and lesbians in the armed forces around the world." Thus, "it is incredibly labor intensive to determine with great accuracy what a country permits or prohibits by law and what really happens on a day-to-day basis. Not only do laws change, but the application of the law may vary from one location to another."]
Some NATO countries neither recognize same-sex relationships nor permit military service by sexual minorities. They include Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.
And, of course, the United States.
Our federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) expressly prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal marriages or civil unions between same-sex couples. And our military policy (known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or DADT), while ostensibly allowing gay and lesbian personnel to serve in secrecy, has resulted in widespread antigay harassment and discharge of sexual minorities. This has continued even as the military has lowered its standards in order to meet enlistment goals — for example, by granting “moral waivers” to convicted felons and recruiting individuals lacking a high school diploma.
Social science research has failed to support the premises on which DADT is based, and opinion polls generally indicate that the US public favors allowing sexual minority military personnel to serve openly. Even onetime supporters of DADT have recognized that it hasn’t worked. Former Senator Sam Nunn and the late Charles Moskos both expressed second thoughts about the policy’s implementation. Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when DADT was adopted, now argues for its repeal.
And, while a majority of the US public still opposes marriage equality, most American adults favor some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.
Yet, Congress has shown little willingness to change current laws. In an Associated Press story today, Anne Flaherty reported that congressional Democrats have been reluctant to push a legislative repeal of the DADT law, citing resistance from their more conservative members and the inevitability of a veto by President Bush. There are no immediate prospects for Congress to repeal DOMA.
All of this might change if Barack Obama is elected and the Democrats gain a significant number of new congressional seats in November. Whereas presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has endorsed DADT, Sen. Obama has called for its repeal. Nevertheless, Sen. Obama hasn’t made DADT a major talking point in his campaign, probably because he wants to avoid repeating President Bill Clinton’s missteps in 1993 when DADT was enacted into law. (Prior to that time, the military’s ban on service by gay personnel was a matter of Executive Branch policy, not federal law.) Sen. Obama has also expressed support for limited recognition of same-sex couples and the repeal of DOMA, although he opposes marriage equality. Sen. McCain opposes marriage equality and, apparently, civil unions and similar legal recognition for same-sex couples.
For now, the gay citizens of Norway — including those in the military — can look forward to marrying. Meanwhile, in the US, marriage equality exists in only two states, with its status in California threatened by a major ballot initiative. And the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN) has had to warn active-duty military personnel that marrying someone of the same sex in California or Massachusetts means risking their military careers, noting that the federal statute enacting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell clearly states “A member of the armed forces shall be separated from the armed forces” if “the member has married or attempted to marry a person known to be of the same biological sex.”