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There is a north-south split among the countries in Europe concerning same-sex partnerships. Many of the northwestern countries, which are nominally Protestant, have either expanded marriage to include same-sex couples, or have created registries for such couples and have granted them some benefits. The southern Mediterranean countries come from the Roman Catholic tradition which considers procreation to be the main function of marriage. None of them have legalized same-sex marriage.

In 2001-APR, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to expand the definition of marriage through legislation so that "two people of different or the same sex can contract a marriage." 1 Both houses in the legislature had approved two bills during the previous fall which made both marriage and adoption available to all committed couples: whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex. This was the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry.

On 2003-JAN-30, Belgium became the second country in the world to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. However, unlike the laws of the Netherlands, the new legislation does not allow them to adopt children. 2

Belgium is a country of about ten million people. Dutch, French, and German languages are spoken there.

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About the legislation:

Like many other northwestern European countries, Belgium had already granted some tax and property rights and privileges to registered gay partners. Pressure to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples started in the Dutch-speaking northern areas of the country, spearheaded by Holebifederatie, the largest gay and lesbian civil rights organization in Belgium. Changes to the marriage act first became possible in 1999 when the conservative Roman Catholic political party, the Social Christians, lost their first election in forty years. 3

According to Annemie Mercelis, legal adviser for Jef Tavernier, the public health minister, it was the previous minister of public health, Magda Aelvoet, who first suggested that the government legally recognize gay relationships. After evaluating the various options, the government decided to not create a separate, parallel system of civil unions for gays and lesbians. They concluded that widening the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples was the preferred route,  Mercelis explained: "Otherwise, it would have meant a whole new type of legislation. [With the revised law] it was a really simple operation....These are good times for the [gay] movement in our little country." 4

A coalition government of Liberals, Socialists and Greens amended the 1830 civil code to make the simple change of defining marriage as a contract between two spouses. No public hearings were conducted.

The Belgium public took little interest in the revisions to the marriage laws. However, there was considerable opposition to allowing same-sex married couples to adopt children.

The House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill by a vote of 91 to 22 vote on 2003-JAN-30.  There were nine abstentions. Only members of the opposition Christian Democrat party (CdH) and the extreme right Vlaams Blok voted against the bill. 5 The Associated Press reported that "During the public debate and vote, dozen [sic] of lesbian and homosexual couples attended the proceedings, some holding hands as the legislators approved the legislation."

The law came into force on 2003-JUN-1, four months after it had received royal assent and after the text had been published in Belgium's official journal.

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Reactions to the legislation:

bullet Before the bill was voted upon, Justice Minister Marc Verwilghen said: "Mentalities have changed. There is no longer any reason not to open marriage to people of the same sex." 6
bullet A Green Party member in the ruling coalition of Greens, Liberals and Socialist, Kristien Grauwels, said: "It makes it clear that any enduring and loving relationship is appreciated in the same way in our modern society." Commenting on the lack of a provision for adoption, Grauwels said: "It still was a step too far for several parties" in the coalition. 4
bullet Socialist deputy Karine Lalieux said: "In spite of the very symbolic value of this law and the positive signal it sends to the gay community ... it remains blatantly hypocritical in one respect: a single person can adopt a child, but not a homosexual couple." 6
bullet Anke Hintjens, a spokesperson for the country’s largest gay rights group, Holebifederatie, said: "We’re very happy. We think it’s a very important moment for us in our history. We have a lot of couples in our movement who want to get married." 2 Hintjens said her group hopes to organize a mass wedding in Brussels after the law takes effect.
bullet Kurt Krickler,  Co-chair of the European Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA-Europe) said: "Throughout the world there are positive moves to recognize the rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. There are now eight EU Member States where same-sex partnerships have some legal recognition, and two that allow same-sex marriage. We hope and expect this trend to continue." 7
bullet ILGA-Europe Executive Director Ailsa Spindler said: "As more and more EU citizens have their same-sex partnerships and marriages legally recognized at home, they will expect the same recognition when they move around Europe. Any refusal to recognize such partnerships by other member states is a barrier to free movement and as such runs contrary to the founding principles of the EU [European Union]." 7

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There are three main restrictions in the new legislation:


Belgians in same-sex relationships can only marry other Belgians, or a partner who is a citizen of a country which also permits same-sex marriage. That only includes the Netherlands, as of mid-2003.


A gay or lesbian couple is not allowed to adopt a child. In the case of a lesbian couple, the birth mother will be considered the sole parent of the child or children. 8 If she dies, then the surviving spouse has no rights to the child. The child may then be ripped out of the only home that they have known, and be placed in a foster home. As of mid 2003, a married lesbian couple with a child is preparing to challenge the ban in court.


There is no provision for joint custody for both spouses; only a biological parent has custody rights. 4

An additional hurdle faced by gays and lesbians is that they can lose their status as a married couple or as registered partners as they move among the countries of the European Union (EU). Only eight out of 15 member states of the EU (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden) legally recognize same-sex couples. The European Parliament addressed this issue in its study of fundamental rights in the EU, which they adopted on 2003-JAN-15. 9 On 2003-JAN-21, the European Parliament's Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) approved a report which recommended that citizens of the EU and their family members be free to move and reside freely within the territory of the member states without losing their status. By a vote of 24 to 18, they adopted amendments to widen the definition of "family members" to include same-sex spouses, registered partners, and other unmarried partners living in a durable relationship. 10

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The first same-sex marriages:

On 2003-JUN-1, same-sex marriages became legal in Belgium. Marion Huibrechts and Christel Verswyvelen, a lesbian couple, were the first same-sex couple to marry. Verswyvelen wore a blue silk dress; Huibrechts, a green suit. Their matching wedding bands were patterned after those in their favorite movie, The Lord of the Rings. Next were Jan Thys and Tom Van Dessel, a gay couple. Thys said: "We know what we did is something very important for Belgian society. But we didn't do it to make a point. We did it because we love each other." 3

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  1. "Same sex marriage news," Marriage for All, at:
  2. "Belgium Approves Same-sex Marriage,", 2003-JAN-30, at:
  3. Sandro Contenta, "June weddings a first for gay Belgians," The Toronto Star, 2003-JUN-23, Pages A1 (front page) and A19
  4. Todd Savage, "Belgium says 'I do;' The country becomes only the second in the world to grant legal recognition to same-sex marriage," The Advocate, 2003-MAR-18, at:
  5. "Belgium Approves Same-Sex Marriages," Associated Press, 2003-JAN-30, at:
  6. Gareth Harding, "Belgium legalizes gay marriage," UPI, 2003-JNA-31, at:
  7. Ailsa Spindler, "ILGA-Europe welcomes Belgian vote for same-sex marriage," 2003-JAN-31, at:
  8. "Same sex marriages: Belgium says 'We do'," Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, 2003-JAN-31, at:
  9. EU document A5-0451/2002, Paragraph 103.
  10. "A first but important step towards free movement of same-sex couples," ILGA-Europe, 2003-JAN-22, at:

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Copyright © 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-JUN-10
Latest update: 2003-JUN-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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